Trial by Fire
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 …show more content…
“You learn that fire talks to you,” he told me.
He was soon joined on the case by one of the state’s leading arson sleuths, a deputy fire marshal named Manuel Vasquez, who has since died. Short, with a paunch, Vasquez had investigated more than twelve hundred fires. Arson investigators have always been considered a special breed of detective. In the 1991 movie “Backdraft,” a heroic arson investigator says of fire, “It breathes, it eats, and it hates. The only way to beat it is to think like it. To know that this flame will spread this way across the door and up across the ceiling.” Vasquez, who had previously worked in Army intelligence, had several maxims of his own. One was “Fire does not destroy evidence—it creates it.” Another was “The fire tells the story. I am just the interpreter.” He cultivated a Sherlock Holmes-like aura of invincibility. Once, he was asked under oath whether he had ever been mistaken in a case. “If I have, sir, I don’t know,” he responded. “It’s never been pointed out.”
Vasquez and Fogg visited the Willinghams’ house four days after the blaze. Following protocol, they moved from the least burned areas toward the most damaged ones. “It is a systematic method,” Vasquez later testified, adding, “I’m just collecting information. . . . I have not made any determination. I don’t have any preconceived idea.”