Todd Willingham

Navarro County, Texas
Date of Alleged Crime:  December 23, 1991
Executed February 17, 2004

Cameron Todd Willingham was convicted of murdering his three daughters by setting his house on fire. Under police interrogation, Willingham said that his wife, Stacy, had left the house around 9 a.m. After she got out of the driveway, he heard his one-year-old twin daughters cry, so he got up and gave them a bottle. The children’s room had a safety gate across the doorway which his two-year-old daughter, Amber, could climb over but not the twins. He and Stacy often let the twins nap on the floor after they drank their bottles. Since Amber was still in bed, he went back into his room to sleep. Willingham's house was warmed by three space heaters, one of which was in the children's bedroom. This heater had an internal flame. Amber had been taught not to play with the heater though she reportedly got “whuppings every once in a while for messing with it.”

Willingham later awoke to a house full of smoke and the sound of Amber crying “Daddy, Daddy.” He hollered, “Amber, get out of the house! Get out of the house!” Willingham got up, felt around the floor for a pair of pants, and put them on. While crouching, he went down a pitch black smoke-filled hallway to the children's bedroom and as he stood up, and his hair caught on fire. He crouched down and patted out the fire on his hair. The heat radiating from the children's bedroom was so intense that he had to turn back, not being able to bear it any longer. He managed to stumble to the front door, trying to catch his breath.

He saw a neighbor, Diane Barbee, and yelled for her to call the Fire Department. He tried unsuccessfully to re-enter the house through the front and then by breaking two windows. He soon retreated into the yard, kneeling down. He intermittently cried, “My babies!” but otherwise was silent. When Barbee returned, she witnessed the windows in the children's bedroom blow out as the fire reached flashover status. The twins died in the fire as did Amber. Amber's body was found in Willingham's bedroom. After Amber called, “Daddy, Daddy,” he never felt she was in his room. Perhaps she had entered and passed out, or perhaps she had not entered the room from the hallway but from another door that connected to the living room.

Fire investigators determined that there were burn patterns on the floor which they felt were caused by an accelerant such as lighter fluid being poured there and used to start the fire. Since common experience indicates fires burn up rather than down, the investigators found it impossible to believe Willingham's claim that during the fire he walked barefoot down the hallway in his house. However, scientific studies that began in 1989, two years before Willingham's fire, show that fires can, in some respects, burn down rather than up.

After a fire starts and is able to heat its surroundings to a certain level of intensity, the heat becomes so great that everything will ignite that is exposed to the heat. At this point the fire instantaneously expands to include areas not previously in contact with flames and is said to flash over. Once a fire flashes over, further burning is controlled by ventilation rather than by the presence of burnable materials or fuel. Since air entering an enclosed fire is cooler than the air already present, it will flow low along the floor and the oxygen in it will allow the fire to burn along the floor, while the hotter, oxygen depleted air higher up will not support burning. Thus burn patterns along the floor are to be expected in such a fire and are not an indication that the fire started there. However, the fire/arson investigators in Willingham's case were ignorant of the results of these studies.

In addition to the alleged arson evidence, a jailhouse informant claimed Willingham confessed, and witnesses testified that Willingham did not try hard enough to save his children. Dr. James Grigson, the notorious “Dr. Death,” testified at sentencing that Willingham cannot be rehabilitated in any manner, and that he poses a continuing threat to society. Grigson regularly gave such testimony regarding convicted defendants after conducting superficial examinations that no serious person would regard as supporting his diagnoses. Willingham was executed by lethal injection on Feb. 17, 2004.  [3/10]


References:  Chicago Tribune, New Yorker, Nightline Video

Posted in:  Victims of the State, Northeast Texas Cases, Arson Murder Cases, Son/Daughter Murder Cases, Triple Homicide Cases, Defendants Executed by Texas