October 23rd, 2009
11:52 PM ET

Did Texas execute an innocent man?

Program Note: Watch Randi Kaye's full report – including her interview with David Martin tonight on AC360° at 10 p.m. ET.

[cnn-photo-caption image=http://i2.cdn.turner.com/cnn/2009/images/10/23/art.vert.willingham.face.jpg caption="A photograph of Cameron Todd Willingham." width=292 height=320]

Randi Kaye| BIO
AC360° Correspondent

I came to Texas this week to look deeper into a story I’ve been covering for a few years now for AC360°.

It’s the story of Cameron Todd Willingham, a father of three who was executed in February 2004 for setting a fire that killed his three daughters. But what if he didn’t set it? What if he just got a lame defense? Is it possible?

We wanted to know why he was convicted of “arson homicide” even though since the trial nine leading arson experts have said the fire showed no evidence of arson. So why was he executed?

We went straight to one of Willingham’s defense attorneys, David Martin, for some answers. We met at his Waco office, hours away from where the fire took place in the tiny town of Corsicana. Martin’s office was true Texas. It felt more like a ranch than a law office. We sat down in a couple of over-sized chairs (everything is bigger in Texas, you know) and talked about the case.

I asked Martin how it was possible that the prosecution put two experts on the stand who said the fire was arson, and yet Martin didn’t put anyone on the stand to refute their arguments. Why no expert to say the fire wasn’t arson in Willingham’s defense?

Martin told me, “We couldn’t find one that said it wasn’t arson.”

As a court-appointed attorney, Martin said money was hard to come by and he only had enough funds to hire one expert. And it turned out that the expert ended up agreeing with the prosecution’s experts about the fire being arson so he never put him on the stand.

“You’re just going to abracadabra an arson investigator up to put on the stand? You have to get money,” Martin said.

So who did Martin end up putting on stand in Willingham’s defense? A felon who was in prison with Willingham and the family’s babysitter.

Martin told me that he thought Willingham was guilty from day one and he believed that the patterns on the floor of the house showed that an accelerant had been used. If he thought he was guilty, could he have given him a good defense?

He said he tried everything he could to defend Willingham. He explained it this way, “you don’t have to believe somebody to defend them. You think Bailey and Cochran believed Simpson? No!”

Martin seemed to be enjoying our back-and-forth so I thought I’d press him on one last issue.

A juror told me just last week that she was having doubts about whether or not Todd Willingham really set the fire and was losing sleep over it all these years later. Willingham was convicted in 1992 and spent 12 years on death row before he was executed in 2004.

Martin’s response to this? “She doesn’t need to have no doubts in my mind. He really was guilty and it doesn’t matter how many people talk about it. The evidence is irrefutable.”

But what about the fact that this juror also told me her family was friendly with one of the prosecution’s key witnesses, Deputy Fire Marshall Doug Fogg. She said she told both the prosecution and the defense about this connection but was still chosen to be on the jury.

I asked Martin if that would be grounds for a mistrial. Without missing a beat, he told me absolutely not. He said it wasn’t a conflict of interest because “In a small town like Corsicana, lots of people knew Doug Fogg,” and “look at the evidence that was presented at trial. Would any reasonable mind conclude after the presentation of the evidence that he was not guilty?”

Before our interview was finished, Martin went on to call Todd Willingham a “monster” and a “sociopath”. He said Willingham was his own worst enemy and that he had so many conflicting accounts of the fire that the jury didn’t believe him.

Sound like a defense attorney to you? Or does David Martin sound more like a prosecutor? Martin said it’s not his job to “swallow” whatever story his client tells him, but he insisted he did his best to keep Todd Willingham off death row.

Filed under: 360º Follow • Crime & Punishment • Randi Kaye • Willingham
soundoff (2 Responses)
  1. Emmy

    Another American Tragedy?...
    It may be that David Martin needs to do a little soul searching! Oh my goodness....I never thought I would feel like this! I hope Cameron Todd Willingham was guilty, because otherwise.... Oh how sad, that he sat on death row, grieving over the horrible death of his little girls, and then to have to think every minute of every day, that he was going to ALSO be executed!
    You may not have to "believe someone" to defend them Mr. Martin; but it sure helps if you are more passionate, and definitely more thorough about the defense of someone's LIFE. And as for that juror, I understand the lack of sleep. I would have ran passed those ignoring me, and found a listening ear! Like maybe the judge????Please for the sake of this family I hope this is a laid to rest.

    October 23, 2009 at 3:19 pm |
  2. M. E. Seyffert

    If you spend any time in Texas you will find that the presumption of innocence is not automatic. And a court appointed lawyer is a person that graduated in the top 75% in his class in law school. It's also true in most states that justice in a small town is different than justice in a large city. So, Todd Willingham had three strikes against before he went to trial.

    Houston, TX

    October 23, 2009 at 1:53 pm |