Despite repeated rebuffs by the state of Texas, relatives of Cameron Todd Willingham on Wednesday again will try to get officials to admit that the Corsicana man was wrongly executed eight years ago for the 1991 deaths of his three young children in a Christmas-season fire.
Eugenia Willingham, the convicted killer’s stepmother, and two of his cousins are scheduled to join lawyers from the New York-based Innocence Project in Austin to announce they will ask the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles to recommend a posthumous pardon.
Also to be present is Ernest Willis, a West Texas man who spent 17 years on death row for the 1986 suspected arson murders of two Iraan women. In December 2004, 10 months after Willingham’s execution, Willis was freed when a Pecos County district attorney concluded the fire in his case likely had been accidental.
A draft of Willingham’s pardons petition asserts that “since his trial, scientific advances have shattered every assumption underlying the testimony of the two fire investigators who declared to the jury and the court that Willingham had set the fire that killed his children. In fact, today, no credible arson expert would make such a declaration.”
Willingham’s relatives could not immediately be reached for comment, but in a statement released Tuesday, the killer’s stepmother said “it was Todd’s last wish that we help clear his name.” His cousin, Patricia Willingham, added, “It’s time for the state of Texas to own up to its mistake and give Todd the justice he deserves.”
Only once, in 2008, has the pardons board recommended that Gov. Rick Perry grant a posthumous pardon. That case involved Timothy Cole, a Texas Tech University student who died in prison 14 years after being convicted of rape. His case – the victim later admitted she had misidentified Cole as her attacker – was a catalyst for a state law providing compensation for exonerated prisoners.
The Innocence Project began championing Willingham’s cause in 2008 when it asked the Texas Forensic Science Commission to review the quality of arson investigations leading to the former auto mechanic’s conviction.
Three reviews of the investigations, one commissioned by the Innocence Project and another by the forensic science commission, found that Corsicana and state arson investigators had misread evidence at the fire scene. Willingham went to his death at the Texas death house protesting his innocence.
The forensic science commission puzzled through conflicting claims in the case until July 2011 when Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott shut down the inquiry by finding commissioners were acting outside their jurisdiction.
Although the review led to far-reaching recommendations to improve education for firefighters, commissioners stopped short of finding that investigators in the Willingham case had done sloppy work.
In a separate attempt to have Willingham declared wrongfully executed, the Innocence Project in 2010 petitioned Austin district courts for a court of inquiry. A proceeding in state District Judge Charles Baird’s court ended abruptly when an appeals court ruled the judge acted improperly in accepting the case.
Baird’s term ended weeks after that ruling, and no effort was made to revive the court of inquiry in another venue.