Find a back issue

Making Dallas Even Better

Nightline Explodes the Willingham Case

Cameron Todd Willingham was convicted of deliberately burning down his house in order to murder his three children, and he was executed for the crime. We have asked why Gov. Rick Perry is so afraid of questions that have been raised about this case.  As this Nightline report makes clear, the answer is that the fire was an accident, not arson at all, which means Texas executed a man for a crime that was not committed. Worse than that, the proof of this was presented to the governor before the execution took place, and he ignored it.

  • Dylan

    Title should read: “The New Yorker Explodes Willingham Case, But Not Enough People Read To Notice, So A Month Later Nightline Re-Explodes It.”

    But yeah, there’s something to be said for brevity.

  • JLeon

    Wick, thanks for continuing to pursue this story. It’s too important to let it just fade away.

  • Chris

    Does this mean that charges against Perry are possible?

  • Scout0820

    Say it ain’t so! Not Gov. Goodhair!

    But seriously,
    Having control over the coercive power of the State, and all that entails, is not something that should be taken lightly. We have followed people for far too long just because they have a little capital “R” behind their names on the ballot. It now looks as if arrogance has cost an innocent man his life. There is a reason why the Governor has the power to block an execution. He or she is our last line of defense against injustice and Perry failed this man and by proxy, all the citizens of this great state. We, as a state, may have killed an innocent man. We all share in this. It is the State of Texas that administers the punishment of execution, not a judge, not a Governor, but all of us as the state. We need to investigate this officially. Find out what went wrong. Correct it from happening again, and then atone for our sins.

  • Curtis Remington

    I will say again at the ouset of my comment that this case bothers me a great deal. I support the death penalty and think we should do all we can to ensure that the people we convict are indeed guilty of the crime.

    That said, this is a shoddy piece of work by the idiotic Terry Moran at ABC. Sin number one is the now-typical reporter-interviewing-reporter soundbite. It’s fine that Mr. Graham at the New Yorker has done a lot of the legwork here, but he should not have been used for so much of the factual information in this story. I wanted to hear more from the experts about what they thought caused this fire and why they thought that. Just having Mr. Graham say experts disagree is not good enough. Let me hear the experts explain their report.

    Sin number 2 is Mr. Moran’s exhasperated smirk when the prosecutor/now judge expresses his confidence in the evidence he used to send a man to death row. A reporter has a responsibility to avoid putting their own personal opinion in their story. Clearly Mr. Moran failed to do that here. His opinion was on display throughout the story. Shame on him.

    I’m glad Wick posted this and there are some useful nuggets of information here, but I have yet to see someone do this story justice.

  • Cheryl


    I’m with you. Let me add there is already plenty of coverage of this important story by other statewide and national sources, so I’m not sure why it has been rehashed here over and over. If politics are of interest to the publisher, then why is there no attention to other recent local political stories? No offense. IJS.

  • Bethany

    I don’t know, Cheryl. The more often this information gets out, in an election year, the better.

    For all the allegedly damning evidence against Willingham, there’s an equal amount against the governor, who very likely had a man killed rather than wait a few more months to review new information.

    Everyone should have this on their minds as they go to vote for governor. Because this? This is unconscionable.

  • Cheryl

    I wholeheartedly agree about Perry’s unforgivable decisions and I’m glad there is so much statewide and national coverage. However, I don’t understand why so many 1’s and 0’s are being devoted in FrontBurner overall (not just this story) to the March primary vs. other political stories in our city. The Willingham scandal is not hidden nor are we being offered a local angle in this blog.

  • Wick Allison

    @ Cheryl: I love you for your concern over what I should be interested in. The fact is, even I am puzzled by what I am interested in. Flipping through the NYTimes on a Saturday, I reach page 23 and find myself reading about Uganda. I did not know I was interested in Uganda. I still don’t think I AM interested in Uganda. But there I am, reading about it. It’s the same with writing. I suppose I would write about what you are interested in if I, too, were interested in it. But apparently I’m not. And I have no explanation for it.

  • Cheryl

    Wick: I really appreciate the care and thoughtfulness of your comments. You know, I think we are on the same page . I was reading a publication earlier this year and found myself drawn to a hatchet job on a poor fool who went from rags to riches to rags. The fool was in financial hot water with the publication or friends of the publication – I don’t remember. I have no idea why I was compelled to read it, but I sure felt icky after I learned about the financial dispute and the relationships. It seemed like a strange misuse of public trust, but here I am writing about the situation. Oh well. Thanks again for your comments and have a great weekend. Great food for thought.

  • In a Sense

    The only expert that has stated that he believes the fire to be accidental is Hurst…who isn’t a recognized, trained fire expert (despite his other scientific qualifications). The other experts, including Beyler, have not claimed an accidental origin, as far as I can tell.

  • Sharon Boyd

    The guy let his 3 little girls burn to death, but he pushed his car away from the burning house. My husband was a Fire Chief. I asked him how many fathers (or mothers) did he ever see stand around outside while their children burned in the house? None! He got out, but couldn’t save one of 3 little girls?

    His neighbors testified against him at the trial. His conviction was not just on the “scientific” arson data. Are we supposed to completely do away with juries and just rely on CSI staff in future murder, rape & assault trials?

  • Jack E. Jett

    I would hope we would rely on facts and not someone’s emotions when we put someone to death. Perhaps he pushed the car away to avoid a further explosion? Perhaps he was in shock and distraught? Perhaps the house was so engulfed in flames it would have been impossible to enter?

  • Curtis Remington

    In A Sense and Sharon: this is why I want to hear more from both sides. The coverage of this has been very one-sided. I want to hear it all so I can make up my own mind. Nightline failed to do that. I hope someone will.

  • jjc

    Curtis – We are not hearing the Gov’s side because he is not allowing it to be told. We are all grown ups here – what does that tell you? I think rather than waiting for the story to be told or fretting about media “fairness” (someone was put to death here), we should be demanding that the State of Texas open up about what really happened here.

  • Daniel

    They don’t have to “prove” the fire was accidental. They merely have to credibly impugn the original “proof” that it was arson. If the original evidence was questionable, then this is a miscarriage et cetera. Full stop.

  • Marty Cortland


    Hold off a second on the “full stop,” please. Criminal convictions do not rely on absolute certainty. Rather, the standard is “beyond a reasonable doubt.” Merely impugning the credibility of the evidence is not sufficient.

  • TH

    Sure, the Nightline piece is a re-hash. But it’s an important story that deserves to be told nationally. (Note how today’s DMN page A3 story on Perry quashing the review commission wasn’t even done by a local reporter but was a wire piece from the Chicago Tribune.) This is important to keep discussing during the election year–Perry would like nothing more than to have it go away.

    For those who doubt what they saw in the video, read the Grann piece at It is a brilliant piece of journalism and utterly convincing.