One of the most fascinating yet heartbreaking events in America’s legal system history is brought to the big screen with Trial By Fire. The film, based on the 2009 New Yorker article also title Trial By Fire, chronicles events around late Texas native Cameron Todd Willingham. In 1992, Willingham was convicted of arson-related triple homicide and was executed 12 years later by the death penalty after his three daughters were killed in a 1991 house fire.
While Willingham always insisted he was innocent, later evidence suggested he was wrongly convicted and executed. His then-wife, Stacy Kuykendall, was, too, convinced of his innocence until ultimately believing he was guilty. Kuykendall played a major role in Willingham’s life and fate, but in the movie version she is quite prominent. So where is Willingham’s wife now?
Since her ex-husband’s execution, Stacy Kuykendall has remained completely under the radar. The sole exception was when she spoke out about his ultimate fate in a 2012 interview with The Huffington Post, eight years after his execution, while his family members sought Willingham’s pardon. “Todd is guilty, the criminal justice system and the courts confirmed his guilt, and he should not be pardoned for his crimes,” Kuykendall said at the time. “My girls would have been 23 and 21 years old today. I miss them so much.”
While Kuykendall was in Willingham’s corner and also persistent about his innocence for years, she changed her stance shortly before his execution.“I read that Todd’s stepmom and cousin are asking the governor for a pardon. I don’t blame Todd’s stepmom for fighting for her son,” she continued to The Huffington Post in 2012. “Mothers love their children and always will, no matter what happens in their lives… I understand why she does not want to face the facts of what he did to our girls.”
In the case, Willingham refused an offer to plead guilty in return for a life sentence. Their daughters killed in the 1991 fire were two and one (twins), and Willingham escaped. Kuykendall and Willingham had a tumultuous past and both had come from troubled backgrounds. According to The New Yorker article, Willingham had been unfaithful, drank heavily, and would physically assaulted his partner, even while she was pregnant. They married a few months before the fire and were a significant part of each other’s lives.
“Me and Stacy’s been together for four years, but off and on we get into a fight and split up for a while and I think those babies is what brought us so close together,” Willingham had said, per The New Yorker. “Neither one of us… could live without them kids.” While Kuykendall admitted to investigators that she’d been hit by Willingham, she initially defended his innocence and didn’t believe he’d kill their children.
She also previously campaigned for his release and wrote to the governor of Texas, “I know him in ways that no one else does when it comes to our children. Therefore, I believe that there is no way he could have possibly committed this crime.” However, her letter didn't work and within a year she’d filed for divorce. Days before Willingham's execution, fire scientist Gerald Hurst concluded there was no foul play and the fire was caused by a space heater, however the governor declined Willingham’s reprieve. Unfortunately, by then, Kuykendall had been swayed by the other court documents and findings.
Although Kuykendall, who was eventually convinced of her ex-husband’s guilt, turned down many of his last requests, she was there for his execution by lethal injection. Wilingham’s last words reinstated his innocence, but given Kuykendall’s last public words about him, it seems that wherever she is, she still doesn’t believe him.