A Tale of Two Texas Cases

EXECUTED:  Cameron Willingham, executed in Texas in 2004 for an arson that killed his three children. He steadfastly maintained his innocence.
FREED:  Ernest Willis, freed from death row in Texas in 2004 after the arson investigation that led to his conviction was discredited.

There are many similarities between these two alledged arson cases from Texas. The main difference is that one resulted in an execution, the other in the inmate being freed.

Some similarities in the cases:

  • Both convictions were based upon the theory that accelerants were used, indicating that the fires were intentionally set.
  • Both convictions were based on speculative interpretations of "crazed glass" that was found at the crime scene.  The splintered glass was originally believed to be caused by an accelerant spray. However, crazed glass may also occur when cold water that is used to put out a fire hits hot glass.
  • The deputy state fire marshal, Manuel Vasquez, testified to similar conclusions in both cases.
  • The convictions were only five years apart (Willingham in 1987, Willis in 1992).  Both were appealed to the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals, and both were denied.
  • In both cases, reinvestigations of the evidence by fire expert Gerald Hurst stated that the burn patterns and residue were consistent with "flash over," a phenomenon unique to electrical fires, rather than being attributable to arson.
  • According to an investigation by the Chicago Tribune, Wilingham's and Willis' cases were "nearly identical" based upon investigations by Hurst and Louisiana fire chief Kendall Ryland.  Then- Texas deputy fire marshall Edward Cheever has admitted, since the Hurst investigation and Willingham's execution, that "we were still testifying to things that aren't accurate today. They were true then, but they aren't now... Hurst was pretty much right on. ... We know now not to make those same assumptions."  (Chicago Tribune, December 9, 2004)
  • One key difference in the two cases was that Ernest Willis was represented in his federal appeals by the high-profile law firm of Latham & Watkins, which represented Willis without charge.

For more on Ernest Willis, visit DPIC's Innocence Page.

Click Here for more on the Chicago Tribune investigation into Cameron Wilingham's case.