At the center of the national death penalty debate today is the controversial case of Cameron Todd Willingham, put to death for the arson-murder of his three little girls. But was he guilty?
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October 19, 2010
Did Texas execute an innocent man?
Several controversial death penalty cases are currently under examination in Texas and in other states, but it’s the 2004 execution of Cameron Todd Willingham — convicted for the arson deaths of his three young children — that’s now at the center of the national debate.
In Death by Fire, FRONTLINE gains unique access to those closest to the Willingham case — meticulously examining the evidence used to convict Willingham, offering an in-depth portrait of those most impacted by the case, and exploring the explosive implications of the execution of a possibly innocent man.
“The state of Texas executed a man for a crime that they couldn’t prove was really a crime,” nationally renowned fire scientist John Lentini tells FRONTLINE.
The re-examination of the case turns on a critical finding that came only weeks before Willingham’s scheduled execution: The investigators who determined that Willingham had set the fire that killed his three daughters had relied on an outdated understanding of arson evidence. “Todd Willingham’s case falls into that category where there is not one iota of evidence that the fire was arson,” forensic scientist Gerald Hurst tells FRONTLINE of the results of his review of the evidence. “Fundamentally, this was a classic accidental fire.”
Death by Fire tells the story a writer named Elizabeth Gilbert who first began to question Willingham’s conviction and to draw attention to the possible miscarriage of justice after corresponding with Willingham as part of a prison pen pal program. As Gilbert dug into Willingham’s case, she found problems with the alleged jailhouse confession and the evidence that Willingham was a sociopath or Satanist. In fact, the satanic images prosecutors had introduced at trial were posters for the rock bands Iron Maiden and Led Zeppelin. “They never established a motive,” Gilbert tells FRONTLINE. “So then their motive shifted to Todd just being an evil person.”
JUST GOT A COMMENT:
(a) “Family’s Effort to Clear Name Frames Debate on Executions”, John Schwartz, New York Times, October 14, 2010,
(b) The Innocence Project Invents False Confessions