Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Transcript of Anderson Cooper's Report on Cameron Willingham - an innocent man executed by Texas

ANDERSON COOPER: Well, imagine if police didn't check a murder scene for DNA evidence or if a forensic pathologist didn't calculate the entry angle of a deadly bullet. They'd be ignoring one of the strongest tools in their crime solving kit, which is science.

Well, that is exactly what some experts say is happening with fire investigations. These experts claim that tens of thousands of fires that are ruled arson each year may not be arsons at all, and the people convicted of setting them may actually be innocent. It is a startling claim.

Tonight, here's CNN's Randi Kaye with an in-depth 360 investigation.


RANDI KAYE, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Two days before Christmas, 1991, Cameron Todd Willingham was home with his three daughters. His wife was out shopping for presents.

EUGENIA WILLINGHAM, TODD WILLINGHAM'S STEPMOTHER: About 10 a.m. in the morning the house was black. He heard someone calling Daddy, Daddy, Daddy.

KAYE: The Willingham home in Corsicana, Texas, was on fire. One-year-old twins Kameron and Karmen and 2-year-old Amber were trapped. WILLINGHAM: He tried to go into their room. And it was down a hall, and he burned his hand on the door facing.

KAYE: Willingham never reached his baby girls. All three of them died. Willingham, who escaped, told family and police he desperately tried to save his daughters. But Doug Fogg and other fire investigators found evidence they say proved otherwise.

DOUG FOGG, RETIRED CORSICANA ASSISTANT FIRE CHIEF: Pour patterns on the floor, they told me that hey, you know, something, a good possibility something was introduced here.

KAYE (on camera): Such as an accelerant.

FOGG: Such as an accelerant.

KAYE (voice-over): Willingham, then 23, who had a history of trouble with the law, was charged with setting the fire, convicted of arson, homicide and sentenced to death.

But what if Fogg and the others got it wrong?

JOHN LENTINI, ARSON EXPERT: Happens all the time. There's maybe, you know, 75,000 suspicious fires every year, that's 357,000 chances to get it wrong.

KAYE: John Lentini is a fire investigator and a forensic scientist. He's analyzed more than 2,500 fire scenes and conducted large scale experiments like this one at Eastern Kentucky University, to better understand the science behind how a fire moves and why.

Lentini says for too long investigators have relied on folklore, not fact, untested myths instead of science.

LENTINI: They haven't had any science training at all since high school. And they go back to their fire department, and they teach the myths to the next guy coming up.

KAYE: Lentini was asked by the Innocence Project to review the Willingham case. He calls the findings by Fogg and the other fire investigators B.S., bad science.

Among them, something called crazed glass.

(on camera) The myth has been that crazed glass, glass with webbing or cracking in the middle of it, has been caused by rapid heating. For years that has led investigators to determine fires were arson. But now science proves that it's not rapid heating that causes the glass to craze. It's rapid cooling.

(voice-over) At this Maryland lab, Lentini heated up glass, then quickly cooled it by spraying it with water, the same way a fireman's hose would cool a window.

(on camera) Let's take it off and see if we spray some water on it, which is what you find is actually what causes the crazing. LENTINI: Yes, this is crazed over here.

KAYE: I can see in there the pattern.


KAYE: And that didn't happen until you put the water on it, which is completely opposite of what investigators have been saying all these years.


KAYE (voice-over): Lentini, with the help of fire investigator Doug Carpenter, also debunked one of the greatest arson myths about temperature.

The fire on the right is burning with gasoline, a common accelerant. The other is just burning wood. Take a look at temperatures. Nearly identical.

DOUG CARPENTER, FIRE INVESTIGATOR: It's a common myth that higher temperatures are produced by gasoline than other types of common materials, and that just is not true.

KAYE (on camera): Which would lead investigators to say that the gasoline fire would be arson just because the temperature's higher but really, this shows that that's not the case.

CARPENTER: That is correct. So you'd come to an unreliable conclusion.

KAYE (voice-over): This video was taken by investigator Fogg after the Willingham fire.

FOGG: Burn patterns, unusual to a normal fire burn.

KAYE: Willingham was convicted after Fogg and the others noticed what they believed were pour pattern on the floor, irregular burn marks that show where an accelerant was poured.

But Lentini says science proves these pour patterns were really caused by a recently accepted phenomenon called flashover, the point, when a fire in a room becomes a room on fire.

LENTINI: They didn't understand flashover. They didn't understand that in an accidental fire you can burn the floor. And if you go into a fire thinking that the floor isn't supposed to burn unless it has help, and you see a burned floor, then you're going to jump to the conclusion that it's arson already.

KAYE: Fires were always believed to burn upward, but Lentini has proven they can burn downward during flashover. The floor, lights, tables, even chairs burst into flames when gases spread downward.

In the Willingham case investigators concluded three separate fires had been set. But Lentini says it was flashover. He set this compartment fire to help illustrate flashover. We watched as the carpet began to smoke, then ignited without ever being lit directly.

(on camera) So flashover causes some of the same patterns and gives off some of the same indicators that an arson fire would?

CARPENTER: That's correct. You can set two fires, one with gasoline, and one with some accidental scenario and come out with the same -- the same pattern.

KAYE (voice-over): In the end, Lentini and his team claimed to have debunked more than 20 arson indicators cited in the Willingham case.

(on camera) What is your response to them saying there weren't pour patterns, there weren't points of origin, flashover caused all of this. The entire room was on fire?

FOGG: I would really disagree with them and tell them that they should have been there when we were fighting the fire. They should have been there as we dug it out.

KAYE: You stand by your findings?

FOGG: Oh, yes.

KAYE: Do you worry at all that you might have helped convict an innocent man based on outdated indicators?



COOPER: Well, when we come back, science might have saved Cameron Todd Willingham from Death Row, might have. But even with such high stakes, see why some fire investigators continue to resist using that science.

Also ahead on this Monday after Easter, a 360 special report, "What is a Christian?" Sex and salvation. Sound likes a simple question. But some of the answers might surprise you.


COOPER: Arson is listed as the cause of tens of thousands of fires every year in America. But now those numbers are being challenged.

Before the break we introduced you to a Texas man sentenced to death for setting a fire that killed his three young daughters. The Innocence Project took up his case. And this is where the story becomes riveting.

Fire investigators are the ones who decide the cause of a fire. But what if everything they've learned about fires and arson is out of date and flat-out wrong?

Once again, CNN's Randi Kaye. (BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

KAYE (voice-over): On a cool December morning in 1991, Cameron Todd Willingham told police he did all he could to save his three little girls from a fire in their home. One-year-old twins Kameron and Karmen and 2-year-old Amber all died.

Willingham escaped with minor burns, only to be charged with homicide by arson, convicted and sentenced to die.

(on camera) What motive would your son have had to take the lives of his three kids?

WILLINGHAM: There was never a motive.

KAYE (voice-over): But fire investigators analyzed the scene say Willingham, who had a history of domestic violence and drinking, set the fire that killed his girls. In fact, they found what they believed were more than 20 indicators the fire at Willingham's home was arson.

But in the years since, four leading fire experts, including John Lentini, claim to have debunked those findings, which they say were based on old and unreliable arson myths.

LENTINI: Total B.S., bad science.

KAYE (on camera): So you're telling me that some of these people that have been convicted of arsons possibly spending time in prison, maybe even on Death Row, are there because of somebody's opinion?


KAYE (voice-over): Forensic scientist and fire investigator John Lentini has worked for decades to pump science into arson investigations. And in the 1980s, along with dozens of other investigators, devised a new science based strategy for investigating fires.

If investigators don't understand science, Lentini says, they can't possibly understand fire.

(on camera) In your opinion, based on your scientific findings, was Todd Willingham innocent?

LENTINI: Yes. He did not light that fire.

KAYE: Still, Texas Governor Rick Perry, after receiving new evidence debunking the original findings, went ahead with Willingham's execution. The governor would not comment on the case for this story.

WILLINGHAM: They tell me that it was too old, it had been too long, that you've -- you know, you've got 30 days to present new evidence in the state of Texas.

KAYE (on camera): Is that a good enough explanation for you? WILLINGHAM: No, no. I think if someone -- if it had been 20 years and they found something, at least a shred of evidence, they shouldn't go ahead and kill someone.

KAYE (voice-over): Cameron Todd Willingham died February 17, 2004 by lethal injection.

(on camera) So did the state of Texas wrongly execute an innocent man?

LENTINI: They did.

KAYE: You have no doubt?

LENTINI: I have no doubt. They had absolutely no proof that that was a set fire.

KAYE (voice-over): Former Corsicana, Texas, assistant fire chief Doug Fogg helped convict Willingham with his determination of arson.

(on camera) You stand by your findings?

FOGG: Oh, yes.

KAYE: You still believe -- you still believe, after all these years, that Willingham...

FOGG: I still believe it was a set fire.

KAYE (voice-over): So does the man who prosecuted him. John Howard Jackson calls some of Lentini's conclusions silly. He says the experts' review raises some questions, but he has no doubt Willingham is guilty.

(on camera) Why, if he was offered life in prison, did he not take it?

WILLINGHAM: He said that he was ready for the needle right then, rather than admit that he could do something like that to his children. He said, "No, I'll never admit to something that I did not do."

KAYE (voice-over): What does Doug Fogg think of the new science- based arson techniques?

FOGG: In reality, it's not new science. It's just people are probably using it more than what they did in the past.

KAYE (on camera): See, now they might say that an arson investigator or fire investigators like yourself just maybe don't want to admit that they've been getting it wrong all of these years.

FOGG: They can say whatever they want to, you know. It's their opinion, and they're entitled to it.

KAYE: It wasn't until 1992 that a guide detailing the ground- breaking new strategy was published. Immediately, it was met with fierce resistance. The majority of investigators rejected it.

In fact, it took about 10 years for the International Association of Arson Investigators to endorse it.

(voice-over) The science is now considered the gold standard of fire investigation by the International Association of Arson Investigators and is taught around the country.

(on camera) How many innocent people wrongly convicted of arson do you expect might be behind bars?

BARRY SCHECK, CO-DIRECTOR, THE INNOCENCE PROJECT: There are hundreds of people at least whose cases have to be re-examined.

KAYE (voice-over): Barry Scheck of the Innocence Project says Dan Dougherty on Death Row in Pennsylvania could be one of them.

LENTINI: Fires are accidental until proven otherwise. None of the evidence in the case indicates an arson fire.

KAYE (on camera): So he shouldn't be on Death Row?

LENTINI: No, he shouldn't be on Death Row. He shouldn't even be in prison. He shouldn't have been tried.

KAYE (voice-over): Dougherty was sentenced to death in 2000 for a fire more than a decade earlier that killed two of his young sons. Neighbors say he tried to put the fire out.

But years later an ex-wife who was in a custody dispute with Dougherty at the time, told police he confessed to her he'd set it. The jury bought it, and the arson evidence.

Like the Willingham case, Lentini says investigators in the Dougherty case mistook burn patterns on the floor and apparent points of origin as evidence of arson. He says they didn't understand science and the phenomenon of flashover. When the fire gets so hot, the entire room catches fire, even the floor.

Dougherty's son Stephen, who had not been born yet when the house burned, hopes the new science saves his dad.

STEPHEN DOUGHERTY, DAN DOUGHTERY'S SON: This makes me live, so- to-think that my dad's going to come out, make me happy and that's what keeps a smile on my face. There is no possible way that he would have ever done this to my brothers, because he said that they were his angels.

KAYE: Still, Sandy Burnette with the International Association of Arson Investigators says, the relatively new science is not a reason to reopen every arson conviction.

GUY E. SANDY BURNETTE JR., INTERNATIONAL ASSOCIATION OF ARSON INVESTIGATOR: If you're asking should there be some wholesale revision and review of every arson conviction in this country, no, absolutely not. And I think the suggestion that there's some widespread pattern of people being convicted improperly of arson, as if it were some rampant process, is simply not supported by the facts.

KAYE: Eugenia Willingham knows science won't bring her son back but hopes it helps save others.

(on camera) Tell me about this picture.

WILLINGHAM: That is spreading his ashes on his children's grave. That was his -- one of his last wishes.

KAYE: So, do you believe that your son is with his three babies, as he called them?

WILLINGHAM: Yes. I feel like they're -- they're happy. He -- he told me that God would be his final judge. And he said he didn't feel like it would turn out the same way that it did here.

KAYE: Eugenia says her son may have finally found what he fought 12 long years for, vindication.

Randi Kaye, CNN, Ardmore, Oklahoma.

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