In late December of 1991, Cameron Todd Willingham, 23, woke up to the smell of smoke and his daughter’s cries. His house was on fire, and his three little girls were trapped. A neighbor who witnessed the fire saw him standing on his front porch, in only a pair of jeans, yelling, “my babies are burning up!” Authorities on the scene at the time said they had to hold him back from running back into the burning building. Tragically, all three children died. But investigators quickly decided — based on unscientific and outdated methods— that the fire was been started intentionally. Witnesses who originally said that Willingham was overwrought later changed their statements, wondering at the fact that he moved his car (Willingham said it was so that the vehicle, parked near the house, didn’t explode and put the children more at risk) and saying that he didn’t appear to be concerned. Authorities soon alleged that Willingham had set the fire, either to rid himself of children that were hampering his lifestyle, or cover up abuse to the children. Despite the fact that those who knew him said that he would never have harmed his daughters, Willingham was arrested, tried, and convicted. He was sentenced to death. Willingham spent the next 12 years professing his innocence and appealing his conviction. In 2004, Dr. Gerald Hurst, a chemist and a fire investigator, examined Willingham’s case. He determined that everything that prosecutors had claimed was indisputable evidence of a fire was, in fact, easily explained by the conditions of an accidental fire, saying that “there is not a single item of physical evidence in this case which supports a finding of arson.” At the last minute before Willingham’s execution date, his lawyers sent Hurst’s investigation to the clemency board, hoping for a stay of execution. Willingham was put to death on February 17, 2004.
Despite the difficulty of investigating the circumstances surrounding an execution for a crime that took place long ago, researchers have found convincing evidence that, in the past three decades, innocent people have been executed.
Kristine Bunch was a young mother in 1995, when a fire in her mobile home killed her 3-year-old son, Tony. Much like Cameron Todd Willingham, investigators speedily judged it to be arson — finding supposed evidence of a liquid accelerant like gasoline or lighter fluid in Tony’s bedroom. Bunch was charged with arson and felony murder, and after only a few hours of deliberation, a jury convicted her. She was sentenced to 60 years. Eight months pregnant at her sentencing, Bunch said that the judge sneered down at her. "I understand that you have arranged to have yourself impregnated," he reportedly said. "You thought it would work to your advantage somehow in this process. It will not.” Bunch gave birth to her second son in prison. In 2006, her attorney convinced Northwestern University’s Center on Wrongful Convictions to take her case. The Center discovered critical files that appeared to show Bunch’s innocence had been withheld in the original trial. The documents showed that the prosecution’s claims that kerosene had been found in Tony’s bedroom were false: the sample had tested negative. Her lawyers filed a petition for a new trial, and in the meantime, Bunch was granted bail. After more than 16 years in jail, she was released. At the time, she spoke to the Associated Press about her hopes for rebuilding her life and raising her second son. "I can learn how to Facebook," she said. "All my friends tell me they're on Facebook.” Bunch's mother told the press that she never gave up hope. "The truth usually has a way of coming out," she said. Four months later, the prosecution dropped the charges. Bunch was a free woman. 4. Kuntrell Jackson
Kuntrell Jackson was just 14 years old when the crime that would change his life was committed — by someone else. Jackson was with an older cousin and friend in November of 1999, when they started talking about robbing a nearby video store. Jackson stayed outside while the other boys went in and threatened the clerk. As she refused, Jackson entered the store. When the clerk threatened to call the police, his cousin shot and killed her. Jackson was tried as an adult and convicted of capital felony murder and aggravated robbery, even though he was not the person who pulled the trigger. The judge was legally barred from considering his age — still too young to vote, drive, or buy cigarettes — which meant he had to sentence him to the mandatory minimum sentence of life in prison, with no chance of parole. Jackson’s legal team argued that the sentence of life in prison for someone who was still a child is “cruel and unusual punishment,” a violation of the Eighth Amendment. The case, combined with another and heard as Miller v. Alabama, went to the Supreme Court of the United States. The Court banned sentences of life without parole for minors in 2012, and remanded Jackson’s case, as well as that of an associated case, back to the lower courts. This past fall, the Court heard another case, Montgomery v. Louisiana, which will decide whether Miller applies retroactively to those sentenced to die in prison as children.
“All that I can ask is that each of you look deeper into this case, so that you really will finally see the truth.”