LIVINGSTON — The clock is ticking as the hour allotted for an interview with Cameron Todd Willingham melts away.
But, more importantly, it’s another hour in the life of what is perhaps Navarro County’s most notorious member of death row.
Willingham was convicted of the murders of his three daughters — Amber Kuykendall, then 2 years old, and 1-year-old twins Karmen and Kameron. The three girls died in a Dec. 23, 1991 fire that was later proved in court as having been intentionally set.
The now 36-year-old Willingham has lived his past 12-plus years on death row ... at the Texas Department of Criminal Justice’s Polanski Unit in Livingston ... in the midst of East Texas’ Piney Woods region ... kept in a cell 23 hours a day.
Just 45 minutes away from the execution chamber at TDCJ’s Walls Unit in Huntsville.
Where, nine days from now, on Feb. 17, the State of Texas will carry out his final sentence.
Death by lethal injection.
Still proclaims innocence
More than a decade may have passed, but Willingham still denies he’s the one that set the fire that killed his daughters.
And he doesn’t know who would have done it either?
“If I knew who did it, I wouldn’t be here,” Willingham said in an interview with the Daily Sun on Wednesday.
Why did the prosecutors pick him if he didn’t do it then?
“Like the (district attorney) said, I was the only one home,” Willingham responded.
He called the ensuing trial “a joke” and the justice system “a farce.” Not many players in that 1992 trial drama escaped his attention.
Willingham called first assistant district attorney John Jackson — the lead prosecutor then, now the district judge here — a “lying district attorney.”
He called the state fire marshall that testified against him “that lying state fire marshall” and that he did “one of the worst criminal investigations ever.”
Willingham alleged a setup in several ways, most specifically talking about a photo of a bottle of charcoal starter fluid on the front porch of his home that the prosecution entered in evidence against him.
He said that the bottle was there for good reason, that it was the place where his grill and charcoal briquettes also were kept. Willingham said that photos of the bottle of lighter fluid showed the charcoal and a portion of the grill in the background ... where he contended law enforcement had moved them just to take the picture of the fluid by itself.
In the August 1992 trial, the state fire marshall testified to the presence of an accelerant — something like the charcoal starter fluid — as the cause of the blaze and as proof the fire was intentionally set.
Willingham said the prosecution never brought up a kerosene lamp kept on a “wicker what-not shelf, you know, the kind women keep their doo-dads on.” He said the fire would have burned the wicker stand, toppling the “quart and a half of kerosene” onto the floor and helping feed the fire.
His list of things to check were long: An autopsy report on the oldest daughter, Amber, showing a pattern of burns that he said should lend credence to his contention that maybe she accidentally set the fire, the layout of the house which would explain why Amber ended up in his bed and not in the room with the twins, and that he had a “no-no” table in the room — a table where everything on it was a “no-no” for the children.
Willingham said he regrets not testifying in his own defense during the 1991 trial.
“I was young and didn’t know anything about the law at all,” Willingham said. “They (prosecutors) rested their case, then (Willingham’s lawyer) rested. He didn’t put on a defense at all.”
A 360 degree change of heart
After the jury returned a verdict of guilty on the first degree murder charges against Willingham, they were recessed until the next day. That jury returned and issued the death penalty.
Willingham said recessing the jury at noon and delaying the punishment phase until the next day was done on purpose.
That next day, the day of the death sentence, would have been his oldest daughter’s third birthday.
Perhaps his most surprising supporter during the punishment phase on that “next day” was the mother of the slain children, Stacy Kuykendall.
In the 12 years since the trial that saw her testify as a character witness on behalf of Cameron Todd Willingham, Kuykendall has come full circle.
She believes he did it.
So why did Kuykendall testify for him in 1992?
“He told me he didn’t (do it) for one. And I was more around his family ... I was just hearing his side (from) the family,” she said this week. “You have to understand, I didn’t get to sit in the courtroom and hear anything.”
And why has she changed her mind?
“I’ve been torn for 12 years ... so I just acted like a jury,” Kuykendall said. “I went through my papers, I’ve got a lot of copies of some of the stuff (from the trial) and I read some of it more than once.
“I had to make sure for myself since I didn’t get to sit in on the trial.”
12 years later
About four years ago, Kuykendall received a letter from Willingham requesting that she visit him in prison.
But after the Dec. 29, 2003 hearing that set Willingham’s Feb. 17 execution date, an exchange between the two changed her mind.
She said as he left the courtroom that day, Willingham asked her if she “was happy now.” Kuykendall replied “Not yet,” she said.
The brief remarks the two traded got her to thinking about the letter. Kuykendall went through her papers, she said, and found it, re-read it, and decided to visit him.
She wanted to ask him questions about the long-ago events. A visit was set for last Saturday, Jan. 31.
Kuykendall had an extended period of dealing with the loss of her children, saying that for the two years after the trial it “was hell. I had to take sleeping pills to sleep for two years (and) it probably took me about three years (to move on),” she said.
Living in Navarro County was difficult enough that Kuykendall even moved away for about six months, she said, then came back. But she moved to a secluded part of the county and very few people knew she had returned.
“And I stayed out there,” Kuydendall said, adding that she tried to keep to herself as much as possible.
The night after the hearing, Kuykendall had nightmares that awakened her in the middle of the night. She was so scared that she had her husband (she has since re-married) get his gun and search their home.
All of which contributed to uneasiness about the visit with her ex-husband.
“The whole time I was going up there I was thinking ‘I don’t want to go in there ... I’ve got to go in there,’” Kuykendall said. “It was hard for me to sit in front of him ... he basically took my life away from me. He took my kids away from me.”
She said she felt restricted the during the visit. Kuykendall said she didn’t want to say what she was really feeling because Willingham might not talk to her freely if she did.
Willingham laid out the same theory to Kuykendall that he suggested during the Daily Sun interview — that Amber had accidentally set the fire.
He said that he woke up to her cry of “Daddy, Daddy.” Willingham said he woke up and saw smoke hovering a few feet above him, then jumped up from the bed where Amber’s body would later be found, put on his pants and ran to the kids’ room where all he could see was fire.
Willingham said he never encountered Amber in those initial moments and theorized that Amber had left the kids’ room via a hall that led both to the front door and to another entrance to his bedroom and that’s how he missed her.
Kuykendall didn’t buy the theory.
“If a child was yelling ‘Daddy, Daddy’ that child would keep going until she found (the parent) ... that’s the most logical thing,” she said. “After I said that, he didn’t have anything to say ... and didn’t talk about it anymore.”
As the date of Willingham’s execution has neared, Kuykendall has been getting a lot of phone calls — but most aren’t from locals.
The calls have come from opponents of the death penalty. She said people have been calling from all over; one even from Indiana.
“They’re telling me ‘we’ve got to stop killing people ... we’re just making him a victim,’” Kuykendall said. “And I’m like, what about my three babies? Are we supposed to just forget about them?”
With nine days left until his death sentence is to be carried out, Willingham has few avenues left to him.
During Wednesday’s interview with the Daily Sun, he spoke of a Feb. 13 (this Friday) hearing before the governor’s clemency board — a body that rarely gives stays of execution.
And it’s unheard of for the clemency board to commute a death sentence to life in prison.
Willingham said there is a motion based on “innocence issues” that he hopes the U.S. Supreme Court will hear, but he tossed that possibility out almost indifferently as if he held little hope of reprieve from that venue.
His most recent motion heard by the Supreme Court was denied on Nov. 3, according to information provided by the Navarro County District Attorney’s Office.
Seemingly, Willingham is pinning his hopes on the clemency board.
Kuykendall said he’s gone so far as to ask her to testify on his behalf before the board.
She won’t, but didn’t tell him so during their recent visit, not exactly giving him an answer when he asked her to testify.
“The reason I didn’t answer him, I didn’t want him to know I wasn’t ... I didn’t want him to know I was,” Kuykendall said. “I guess I’m still scared of the man.”
And Willingham was persistent about making the request, she said.
“He said five or six times that if I went up there, since I was (the mother of the) victims it may get turned into a life sentence, but that’s something I just couldn’t do.”
Dealing with death
Willingham said he will not allow any members of his family to attend his execution should it occur.
“If I could, I wouldn’t even have the media there ... I know you guys are just doing your job ... but I just wouldn’t have anyone there,” he said.
As the children’s mother, Kuykendall has the right to witness the execution but said this week she doesn’t know if she will or if she won’t.
Willingham said he has already died, that he died 12 years ago on Dec. 23 when he was told of his oldest daughter’s death.
He’s “dealing with it,” Willingham said, by reminding himself “that I didn’t do it.”
“If people get their sick jollies” out of killing him, he said, “Then that’s what they have to deal with. All they’re doing is killing an innocent man.
“But they’ve done that before already, many times, so this is nothing new for them.”
For Kuykendall, the finality of Willingham’s sentence hasn’t sunk home yet. Whether or not it will bring her closure is something of which she’s not yet sure.
“I don’t know. I guess I’ll have to wait until it’s over. It’s never going to be (totally) over,” she said. “Maybe some of the fear of him will leave me, but I’ll never get over what he did to my kids.”
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Originally published Feb. 8, 2004
LIVINGSTON — The clock is ticking as the hour allotted for an interview with Cameron Todd Willingham melts away.
- The Willingham Files
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