Death of an Innocent Man

If ever you should need an argument against the death penalty, you could scarcely do better than the case of Cameron Todd Willingham, a man executed in Texas in 2004 for deaths by arson — for which he was not responsible. His story is told in “Trial By Fire” by David Grann in the current New Yorker. Willingham’s case has come to prominence again because his was one of the first investigated by a Texas government commission set up to examine errors and misconduct by forensic scientists — something that Canada has recent experience with.

Craig Beyler, an expert on fire engaged by the commission has said that in Willingham’s case there was “no scientific basis for claiming that the fire was arson.” As Grann puts it:

[Investigators] ignored evidence that contradicted their theory, had no comprehension of flashover and fire dynamics, relied on discredited folklore, and failed to eliminate potential accidental or alternative causes of the fire. [Beyler] said that [investigator] Vasquez’s approach seemed to deny “rational reasoning” and was more “characteristic of mystics or psychics.” What’s more, Beyler determined that the investigation violated, as he put it to me, “not only the standards of today but even of the time period.”

I discovered at the end of the article that no U.S. state has ever officially acknowledged that “since the advent of the modern judicial system” it has executed an innocent person. Texas, the state that has executed more people than any other (439 since 1976) may become the first to do so.


  1. From Dudley Sharp, contact info below

    1) “Cameron Todd Willingham: Media Meltdown & the Death Penalty:
    “Trial by Fire: Did Texas execute an innocent man?”, by David Grann–the-death-penalty.aspx

    This was written and released prior to the Corsicana Fire Marshall’s report, below:

    2) EXCLUSIVE: City report on arson probe:
    State panel asks for city response in Willingham case

    3) No Doubts

    For a collection of articles, go to:

    Corsicana Daily Sun, The Willingham Files

    OTHER REPORTS: There is the potential for, at least, 3 more, official, reports on this case: the Texas Fire Marshall’s office, which will give an official and requested reply, the Corsicana Police Dept. and Navarro County District Attorney’s office, both of which, I speculate, may only contribute to the TFM report, but could issue their own reports.

    There is an official “report” which, it appears, few have paid attention to – the trial transcript.

    I find that rather important because, at least five persons, who were involved with the trial, the prosecutor, defense attorney, two surviving fire investigators and a juror have all voiced support for the verdict, still, in the light of the criticism of the arson forensics.

    One of those original fire investigators is, now, an active certified arson expert.

    Dudley Sharp
    e-mail, 713-622-5491,
    Houston, Texas

    Mr. Sharp has appeared on ABC, BBC, CBS, CNN, C-SPAN, FOX, NBC, NPR, PBS , VOA and many other TV and radio networks, on such programs as Nightline, The News Hour with Jim Lehrer, The O’Reilly Factor, etc., has been quoted in newspapers throughout the world and is a published author.

    A former opponent of capital punishment, he has written and granted interviews about, testified on and debated the subject of the death penalty, extensively and internationally.