In August of 1992, Cameron Todd Willingham was put on trial for an alleged arson that led to the death of his three children. At trial, an arson investigator said that there were 20 indicators of arson in the case. Mr. Willingham had a checkered past that included the fact that he had committed domestic assault against his wife. Evidence was presented that suggested that Mr. Willingham was a satanist. And a jailhouse snitch claimed that Mr. Willingham had confessed the crime to him. An important theme in the original trial was “a fire doesn’t lie”. It appeared to be an open and shut case. And Mr. Willingham was convicted and sentenced to death.

However, in the years that would follow, the entire case against Mr. Willingham would unravel. But somehow, this still would not save Mr. Willingham. And on February 17, 2004, Mr. Willingham was executed. The jailhouse snitch issue will be covered in depth in a forthcoming article. But for the purposes of this article, we’re looking at the arson investigation. One of the foremost arson investigators in the world, Gerald Hurst, would review the case 3 weeks before his execution. And he determined that all 20 of the “indicators of arson” were bunk. At trial, the prosecutor had presented evidence suggesting that “pour patterns” meant an accelerant had been poured on the floor in the shape of a pentagram. Which was argued was a satanist symbol. However, Mr. Hurst noticed that the burn patterns correlated perfectly with the windows in the house. What had been characterized as “pour patterns” were actually just “ventilation patterns”. The only evidence of an accelerant was out on the front porch, right next to the grill. Which surprise, surprise, lighter fluid was kept next to the grill. Which is a safety hazard, but isn’t proof of arson.

The depth to which a lot of arson investigation as a field has been debunked as junk science is beyond the scope of this article. But will be discussed further in upcoming articles. But as one of those at the forefront of the more scientific approach to arson investigation, Dr. Hurst said that there was “not one iota of evidence of arson” in the Willingham evidence. The original arson investigation was essentially voodoo. There was no science in it. It was all hunches and speculation.

And then add on to it the absurdity that the prosecution argued that the posters Mr. Willingham had suggested he was a satanist. Mr. Willingham’s posters were dark, including skulls and other macabre themes. But they were just rock band posters from the famous bands Iron Maiden and Led Zeppelin. It’s astonishing that anybody would use popular rock bands posters to argue somebody was a satanist. But as shown in Frontline’s episode on this case, there are members of the prosecution and police that still argue that these posters are still somehow relevant to Mr. Willingham’s state of mind. It’s shocking. What evidence would they find against you and me if they can use rock band posters to argue you are a satanist? It’s part of the reason why the presumption of innocence is so important. If you start from a skeptical point of view, you could convince yourself that anyone has a depraved mind. Trials are supposed to be about verifiable evidence. Not rank speculation taken from a cynical point of view. And Cameron Todd Willingham paid with his life for the way our courts can play it fast and loose with evidence.

If you are charged with arson, carefully scrutinize the evidence that is being presented against you. The troublesome nature of much of arson investigation is what led to PCAST’s 2016 report to call for “urgent attention” to 2 fields of investigation that are being used to convict people but that are suspect: (1) arson and (2) shaking baby syndrome. Do not take anything for granted when it comes to arson investigation. A report that purportedly had 20 indications of arson, was later determined to have “not one iota of evidence” by one of the foremost arson investigators in the world. If you can afford an expert, hire your own expert. There’s too much voodoo in much of arson investigations to just trust the State’s expert is actually science. And you want an attorney who will litigate the issue to attempt to keep out bogus evidence. The laws are terrible in this area. So, there’s no guarantee of success. But make sure you have a lawyer who will fight for you in this area. You need at least one person in your corner arguing that junk science doesn’t belong in the courtroom.