Tonight a look at the balloon chase that captivated millions. A little boy thought to be on board, but thankfully he was hiding at home. Plus, Dr. Sanjay Gupta reports on a remarkable way to cheat death.
Want to know what else we're covering? Read EVENING BUZZ
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Program Note: Randi Kaye is Keeping them Honest with more details tonight on AC360° at 10 p.m. ET.
Randi Kaye | BIO
It all started in 1991 just days before Christmas in the small town of Corsicana, Texas.
Cameron Todd Willingham was home alone with his three little girls when the house caught on fire. All three children died and Willingham got out with just some minor burns. He was convicted of "arson homicide" and sentenced to death for setting the fire while his wife was out shopping for Christmas presents.
I've covered this case for years now for AC360° and there are still so many unanswered questions.
Top of the list: "Was an innocent man executed?" And now, is Texas Governor Rick Perry trying to cover up evidence that would show he was innocent? Willingham died by lethal injection February 17, 2004, after Texas Governor Rick Perry refused to grant him a stay even though new evidence had come to light that the fire was not arson! Mr. Perry is now in a heated re-election campaign.
Willingham's stepmother, Eugena Willingham, told me she visited her son on death row every six weeks for 12 years. She always believed in her son's innocence. I remember discussing the case over iced tea and homemade cookies in her Ardmore, Oklahoma home. She's a sweet woman with a Texas-sized heart.
We sat in her kitchen a couple years ago, when I first interviewed her for a story on AC360°, and she showed me the family photo album. So many pictures of her son Todd and her granddaughters. She told me, "Todd called them his babies." She spread his ashes over their graves.
For weeks, Governor Perry has been facing criticism for suddenly removing four members of a state commission which had set out to determine once and for all if Todd Willingham was innocent when he died.
This replacement of four members of the commission that had already been working on the case means the state's work on the case is delayed, and maybe even derailed for good. The findings were supposed to be released just weeks before the Texas Republican Primary vote.
One person watching this case with eyes wide open now is Dorenda Lynn Brokofsky. She was on the jury in the Willingham arson trial back in 1992 and she told me today, she hasn't slept very much since. All these years later, Brokofsky wonders if Willingham was innocent, even though she decided along with the others at the time that he was guilty.
We spoke by phone from her home in the midwest, where she moved after leaving Corsicana, where the fire took place. She dropped a couple of bombshells that left many of us here at AC360° shaking our heads.
She told me, "My dad was a fire marshall for eight years in Corsicana." He wasn't the fire marshall at the time of the Willingham fire, but she had a connection. And get this, she said her family was "good friends" with Douglas Fogg. Fogg was the deputy fire marshall and a key witness in the case. Fogg’s determination that the fire was arson really helped send Willingham to death row.
I interviewed Douglas Fogg years ago about this case and he told me he still stands by his findings and believes Willingham set the fire. I asked him if he's at all concerned he may have sent an innocent man to his death? He said, simply, "No."
But back to the juror who knew Investigator Fogg. How could prosecutors, the judge, and even the defense, let a woman on the jury who was "good friends" with a key witness for the prosecution and the deputy investigator? Wouldn't that be a mistrial? Too late for Todd Willingham now, but the juror told me, "I told them I knew Mr. Fogg but they didn't care."
To this day, Brokofsky isn't sure Willingham was guilty. "When you're sitting there with all those facts, there was nothing else we could see. Now I don't know. I can't tell you he's innocent, I can't say 100 percent he's guilty," Dorenda said.
"I don't sleep at night because of a lot of this,” she told me. “I have gone back and forth in my mind trying to think of anything that we missed. I don't like the fact that years later someone is saying maybe we made a mistake. That the facts aren't what they could've been."
Brokofsky said, "I've got to stand in front of my God one day and explain what I did."
To be fair, Todd Willingham wasn't perfect. He had a history and was known around town for domestic disputes with his wife. Texas Governor Rick Perry, who has always said there was "overwhelming" evidence Willingham was guilty, just yesterday called him a "monster" and said he had tried to beat his wife into having an abortion, suggesting Willingham did not want the children. Willingham's stepmother told me they did fight, but she "never saw any bruises on his wife."
When I told the juror that arson science has changed over the years and that at least half a dozen arson experts now say the fire was not arson and not intentionally set, Brokofsky got so upset she had to get off the phone. She said she needed some time to "process this."
Imagine, wondering all your life, if you sent an innocent man to the death chamber?
Editor's Note: An investigation into the deaths of two people who spent up to two hours inside a "sweat lodge" at an Arizona retreat last week has been elevated from an accidental death investigation to a homicide inquiry, Yavapai County Sheriff Steve Waugh told reporters Thursday.
Tonight we'll have the latest on the balloon mystery flight that had millions glued to their TV sets. Above Colorado, news helicopters were tracking a homemade helium balloon that looked like homemade space ship or a massive flying Jiffy Pop. A six-year-old boy was believed to be on board as the balloon traveled 50 miles going as high as 7,000 feet. But when the balloon eventually landed, the child wasn't there. Then there was concern the boy might have fallen out. Though, three hours after the ordeal began, came word Falcon Heene was never on board and had hid in his family's attic.
Tonight you'll hear from Falcon and his father, Richard Heene, who says the balloon was a family invention.
We also have an exclusive report on allegations Texas executed an innocent man. Cameron Todd Willingham was put to death five years ago. But more than half a dozen forensic experts believe the fire that killed his three girls was not arson. Tonight a juror is speaking out and admitting she has trouble sleeping at night due to the case. You'll also hear from Willingham's defense attorney. We've been covering this story for months, demanding answers and Keeping them Honest.
There's also an incredible report from Dr. Sanjay Gupta. See how a woman cheated death when she was frozen alive. It's tied to his new book, "Cheating Death: The Doctors and Medical Miracles that are Saving Lives Against All Odds."
Join us for these stories and much more starting at 10pm ET. See you then!
Do you consider death to be black or white? There’s no in between? Or do you view death as a more complex state with shades of gray?
This week I produced a couple of segments for Anderson and Dr. Gupta leading up the upcoming news special, Another Day Cheating Death. In it Dr. Gupta takes a look at several near death experiences like a case in Norway that set a record as the coldest patient ever to live.
The story is about Anna Bagenholm, an MD who was declared clinically dead when she arrived by helicopter at the University Hospital of North Norway. She had suffered a horrible ski accident.
Bagenholm's heart had stopped. She hadn't taken a breath in more than two hours, and she was so cold that her core body temperature was just 56 degrees.
Dr, Gupta tells us what saved her and what doctors can learn from her case to save others. But the question I most wanted answered was: When is someone really dead?
Bagenholm explains how complicated that was in her case: “I was dead…Not in the manner of law. I wasn't dead. But my brain it was still working but my heart stopped. If you ask a child, they would say I was dead for three hours. but if you ask a doctor, they have to say I was not dead. Because I wasn't brain dead…I was clinically dead.”
Dr. Gupta adds that if she had been in a hospital without a heartbeat for three hours, she would likely have been pronounced dead.
So do you know anyone with a near death experience? Tomorrow we look at another miraculous case of a heart attack victim who recalls floating away from her body and heading towards a tunnel and light. You might be surprised how many people report similar experiences each year, around the world. What’s interesting is the main difference in these recollections between people in Western cultures and those in other parts on earth. Dr. Gupta will explain this too in his special.
For more tune in tonight on AC360.
Follow David on Twitter @puenteac360.
The 6-year-old Colorado boy who is believed to have set adrift a helium balloon Thursday, prompting ground and air searches, has been found alive, authorities said.
He was found in a box in the attic at his family's Fort Collins home, according to authorities.
A sibling said he saw the boy, identified as Falcon Heene, get into the craft Thursday morning, authorities said.
But the boy was not inside the craft when it made a soft landing near Keenesburg, about 60 miles from its starting point in Fort Collins, at 1:35 p.m. (3:35 p.m. ET).
Program Note: Tune in tonight to hear Dr. Sanjay Gupta report on a near-death experience. Tonight AC360° at 10 p.m. ET.
Editor's Note: Below is an excerpt from CNN Chief Medical Correspondent Dr. Sanjay Gupta's new book, "Cheating Death: The Doctors and Medical Miracles that Are Saving Life Against All Odds" published by Wellness Central, an imprint of Grand Central Publishing. The following is from Chapter Two: A Heart-Stopping Moment.
Sanjay Gupta, M.D.
CNN Chief Medical Correspondent
Mike Mertz was driving home, an hour after finishing his run as a school bus driver in Glendale, Arizona. He told me he doesn't remember why he didn't come straight home from work that day. He thinks that maybe he went for a jog. A trim fifty-nine years old, Mertz enjoyed a two- or three-mile run several days a week. Maybe he was looking for a cheaper gas station than the one on his usual route or was just trying to avoid taking his Saturn over a nasty set of new speed bumps. Whatever the reason, whatever route he wandered, it brought Mertz not to the usual entrance of his townhome complex, but the back driveway. The change in routine may have saved his life.
Corey Ash, a UPS driver, was making deliveries that Wednesday afternoon, when he heard a terrible engine noise. Thinking the sound was underneath his own hood, he pulled over. Hopping out, Ash immediately realized that it was coming from a Saturn almost directly across the street.
The Democratic National Committee
The Democratic Party is committed to winning elections at every level in every region of the country, and getting started right now with a massive effort to fund organizers on the ground in every state.
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Malia and Sasha Obama attend a White House music series 'Fiesta Latina' on October 13, 2009 in Washington, DC.
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