Ex-wife of Texas man executed for killing their 3 kids repeats her claim he confessed

By Jeff Carlton, AP
Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Ex-wife: Willingham killed 3 kids in arson case

AUSTIN, Texas — The ex-wife of the Texas man executed for setting fire to their home and killing their three daughters tearfully reiterated her contention Wednesday that he confessed his guilt to her.

Stacy Kuykendall read a prepared statement to reporters outside the Travis County courthouse. She told reporters that Cameron Todd Willingham set the fire that killed the girls “and watched while their tiny bodies burned.”

A hearing is scheduled for later Wednesday in which a judge has been asked to clear Willingham’s name based on allegedly faulty evidence of arson.

“My ex-husband murdered my daughters, and just before he was executed, he told me he did it,” Kuykendall said.

Kuykendall’s voice began quavering early in her statement, as she noted her oldest daughter would be 21 and her twins would be 19. “I think about my girls every day and I miss them,” she said.

Willingham publicly maintained he was innocent until he was put to death in 2004.

If the judge clears Willingham, it will mark the first time an official in the nation’s most active death penalty state has formally declared that someone was wrongly executed.

Prosecutors are fighting that effort, which is being led by the Innocence Project, a New York legal center.

John Bradley, the top prosecutor in Williamson County who also chairs the Texas Forensic Science Commission, said he believes the effort to have Willingham declared innocent is not about justice — or even the guilt or innocence of Willingham.

“What they are interested in is finding the poster boy for the abolition of the death penalty,” Bradley said. “And they want to make Willingham that poster boy. And they chose poorly, because Willingham is a guilty monster.”

Bradley was appointed to the science commission post by Gov. Rick Perry in what many viewed as a political move to bury new evidence that cast doubt on Willingham’s guilt.

State district Judge Charlie Baird scheduled an unusual court of inquiry hearing Wednesday after the Innocence Project filed a petition asking him to “restore the reputation” of Willingham and declare he was wrongly convicted.

Navarro County District Attorney R. Lowell Thompson filed a motion late Monday asking that Baird recuse himself from Wednesday’s hearing. Thompson noted that Baird previously ruled on the case as a member of the Court of Criminal Appeals and questioned whether he is impartial, noting he won a “Courage Award” this year from the Texas Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty.

Baird declined to comment.

A disputed arson finding made by a pair of fire investigators following the 1991 deaths of Willingham’s daughters is at the heart of the case.

A jury in Corsicana, south of Dallas, convicted Willingham of capital murder in 1992. He was executed in 2004, after Perry turned down his final appeal despite evidence from a renowned fire expert that there was not enough evidence to support the arson determination.

Testimony from fire investigators was the primary evidence against Willingham. The defense did not present a fire expert because the one hired by Willingham’s attorney also said the fire was caused by arson.

But the investigators’ conclusions have been strongly challenged by several fire experts. Craig Beyler, the chairman of the International Association of Fire Safety Science, wrote in a report last year that investigators didn’t follow standards in place at the time and did not have enough evidence to make an arson finding.

The opinions of a state fire official in the case were “nothing more than a collection of personal beliefs that have nothing to do with science-based fire investigation,” Beyler wrote. The State Fire Marshal’s Office continues to stand behind the arson finding.

The science commission was set to hear testimony from Beyler last year. But a few days before that meeting, Perry removed three members of the commission and appointed Bradley, a conservative ally, as its chairman. Bradley subsequently canceled the meeting amid accusations that Perry was interfering with the inquiry.

The science commission is still looking into whether investigators were negligent in ruling the fire was caused by arson. Commissioners last month rejected Bradley’s efforts to close the case and conclude that fire investigators did not commit professional misconduct.

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