Corsicana Daily Sun, Corsicana, Texas

December 2, 2009

(12-02-09) Jurors defend verdict that led to Texas execution


JEFF CARLTON

Associated Press Writer



CORSICANA — David Martin is sickened by the suggestion that Texas executed an innocent man when Cameron Todd Willingham was put to death for setting a fire that killed his three children.



The veteran defense attorney represented Willingham at trial. He looked at all the evidence. And he has no doubt that his client deserved to die.



"I never think about him, but I do think about those year-old babies crawling around in an inferno with their flesh melting off their bodies," Martin said. "I think that he was guilty, that he deserved death and that he got death."



The 2004 execution, however, didn't end questions about the case. Fire investigator experts hired first by The Innocence Project and later by the Texas Forensic Science Commission concluded the original finding of arson was seriously flawed.



Without that finding, prosecutors have admitted it would have been hard to win a death sentence against Willingham.



But the reports have done nothing to change the minds of Martin and four jurors reached by The Associated Press in recent weeks, who all remain convinced Willingham set the blaze 18 years ago that killed 2-year-old Amber and 1-year-old twins Karmon and Kameron. They never heard from Willingham, who declined to take the stand in his own defense.



Prosecutors, meanwhile, called 17 witnesses, including the only experts to testify — both fire investigators who told jurors arson was to blame.



"All you can go on when you are on a jury is what is put before you," said one juror, Dorenda Dechaume, 39. "I stand by my vote — guilty."



At trial, the expert testimony was definitive. The county's assistant fire chief, Doug Fogg, testified that he found pour patterns and puddling on the floor, signs that someone had poured a liquid accelerant throughout the Willingham's home. Manuel Vasquez, the state fire marshal whose credentials as a 30-year veteran firefighter and investigator were established on the stand, was unequivocal in his condemnation of Willingham, saying the defendant "told me a story of pure fabrication."



"He just talked and he talked, and all he did was lie," Vasquez said.



The defense didn't present a fire expert of its own — for good reason, Martin said.



"We hired one ... and he said: 'Yep. It's arson,'" Martin said. "It was really very, very clear what happened in the house. Everybody who saw it, of course, reached the same conclusion."



Yet in a report released in August, fire expert Craig Beyler, chairman of the London-based International Association for Fire Safety Science, wrote the analysis conducted by Vasquez was "nothing more than a collection of personal beliefs that have nothing to do with science-based fire investigation."



Two days before the forensic science commission was to consider the report, Gov. Rick Perry fired three members. The move has delayed the commission's investigation indefinitely and drawn accusations that Perry is trying to cover up a mistaken execution on his watch.



Jurors said there were other odd details that sealed Willingham's fate. Ronald Franks, a Corsicana Fire Department paramedic, testified he returned to the home a few days after the fire. He found Willingham, who complained that his dart set was either burned or stolen from the wreckage.



Then, Franks testified, Willingham told him investigators would likely find cologne in the floor samples they were testing. He told Franks "he had poured cologne on the floor because the children had liked the smell of that cologne." He said he had poured it from the bathroom through the hallway to where the children were found, Franks said.



Jurors also heard from Willingham's neighbors. They testified that as the house south of Dallas burned to the ground, he was crouched down outside, screaming. But they also said he moved his car away from the house while his children were trapped inside.



That detail chilled jurors, who inferred Willingham showed more concern for his car than his kids.



"There was evidence of a fire that was deliberate," said juror Henry Ponder, now 81. "Not getting the children out of the house. Getting the car out of the way. It was all there."



Martin's case was brief, with just two witnesses. The first was the family baby sitter, who testified there was an oil lamp in the hallway, suggesting it might have spilled and spread flammable liquid. The second was a jail inmate, who was going to dispute the testimony of a jailhouse snitch who claimed Willingham had confessed. But the judge forbid most of his testimony as hearsay.



Willingham wasn't interested in explaining his behavior at trial. Outside the jury's presence, he took the stand to show for the record he had been advised of his right to testify.



"It's not that I don't wish to (testify), but I don't feel the need to," he said.



The jury returned its guilty verdict in 77 minutes.



"A lot of them wanted to vote right away," Dechaume said. "Me and two other people wanted to go over the facts of the case. It was unfair to go straight in there and decide. We went through everything we could have. All I can go by is what I had seen then."



Both Martin and co-counsel Robert Dunn, who did not return a message from the AP, are experienced attorneys who have represented clients in several capital murder cases. One of Willingham's five appeals claimed he didn't receive adequate legal representation, an argument repeatedly rejected by several appeals courts.



"God forbid that somebody was executed who was innocent. Nobody wants that to happen," Martin said. "But for somebody so obviously guilty like Willingham — it's a travesty to make it seem like it was something other than what it was."



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Copyright 2009 The Associated Press.