Trial by Fire
Did Texas execute an innocent man?
by David Grann September 7, 2009
Cameron Todd Willingham in his cell on death row, in 1994. He insisted upon his innocence in the deaths of his children and refused an offer to plead guilty in return for a life sentence. Photograph by Ken Light. Related Links
Audio: Grann on the Texas execution that may change the death penalty debate. Video: David Grann discusses the flaws of the Cameron Todd Willingham investigation. Ask the Author: Live chat with Grann Wednesday, September 2 at 3 P.M. E.T. The fire moved quickly through the house, a one-story wood-frame structure in a working-class neighborhood of Corsicana, in northeast Texas. Flames spread along the walls, bursting through doorways, blistering paint and tiles and furniture. Smoke pressed against the ceiling, then banked downward, seeping into each room and through crevices in the windows, staining the morning sky. Buffie Barbee, who was eleven years old and lived two houses down, was playing in her back yard when she smelled the smoke. She ran inside and told her mother, Diane, and they hurried up the street; that’s when they saw the smoldering house and Cameron Todd Willingham standing on the front porch, wearing only a pair of jeans, his chest blackened with soot, his hair and eyelids singed. He was screaming, “My babies are burning up!” His children—Karmon and Kameron, who were one-year-old twin girls, and two-year-old Amber—were trapped inside. Willingham told the Barbees to call the Fire Department, and while Diane raced down the street to get help he found a stick and broke the children’s bedroom window. Fire lashed through the hole. He broke another window; flames burst through it, too, and he retreated into the yard, kneeling in front of the house. A neighbor later told police that Willingham intermittently cried, “My babies!” then fell silent, as if he had “blocked the fire out of his mind.” Diane Barbee, returning to the scene, could feel intense heat radiating off the house. Moments later, the five windows of the children’s room exploded and flames “blew out,” as Barbee put it. Within minutes, the first firemen had arrived, and Willingham approached them, shouting that his children were in their bedroom, where the flames were thickest. A fireman sent word over his radio for rescue teams to “step on it.” More men showed up, uncoiling hoses and aiming water at the blaze. One fireman, who had an air tank strapped to his back and a mask covering his face, slipped through a window but was hit by water from a hose and had to retreat. He then charged through the front door, into a swirl of smoke and fire. Heading down the main corridor, he reached the kitchen, where he saw a refrigerator blocking the back door. Todd Willingham, looking on, appeared to grow more hysterical, and a police chaplain named George Monaghan led him to the back of a fire truck and tried to calm him down. Willingham explained that his wife, Stacy, had gone out earlier that morning, and that he had been jolted from sleep by Amber screaming, “Daddy! Daddy!” “My little girl was trying to wake me up and tell me about the fire,” he said, adding, “I couldn’t get my babies out.” While he was talking, a fireman emerged from the house, cradling Amber. As she was given C.P.R., Willingham, who was twenty-three years old and powerfully built, ran to see her, then suddenly headed toward the babies’ room. Monaghan and another man restrained him. “We had to wrestle with him and then handcuff him, for his and our protection,” Monaghan later told police. “I received a black eye.” One of the first firemen at the scene told investigators that, at an earlier point, he had also held Willingham back. “Based on what I saw on how the fire was burning, it would have been crazy for anyone to try and go into the house,” he said. Willingham was taken to a hospital, where he was told that Amber—who had actually been found in...