Friday, 16 October 2009

A juror’s doubts

It all started in 1991 just days before Christmas in the small town of Corsicana, Texas.

Cameron Todd Willingham was home alone with his three little girls when the house caught on fire. All three children died and Willingham got out with just some minor burns. He was convicted of “arson homicide” and sentenced to death for setting the fire while his wife was out shopping for Christmas presents.

I’ve covered this case for years now for AC360° and there are still so many unanswered questions.

Top of the list: “Was an innocent man executed?” And now, is Texas Governor Rick Perry trying to cover up evidence that would show he was innocent? Willingham died by lethal injection February 17, 2004, after Texas Governor Rick Perry refused to grant him a stay even though new evidence had come to light that the fire was not arson! Mr. Perry is now in a heated re-election campaign.

Willingham’s stepmother, Eugena Willingham, told me she visited her son on death row every six weeks for 12 years. She always believed in her son’s innocence. I remember discussing the case over iced tea and homemade cookies in her Ardmore, Oklahoma home. She’s a sweet woman with a Texas-sized heart.

We sat in her kitchen a couple years ago, when I first interviewed her for a story on AC360°, and she showed me the family photo album. So many pictures of her son Todd and her granddaughters. She told me, “Todd called them his babies.” She spread his ashes over their graves.

For weeks, Governor Perry has been facing criticism for suddenly removing four members of a state commission which had set out to determine once and for all if Todd Willingham was innocent when he died.

This replacement of four members of the commission that had already been working on the case means the state’s work on the case is delayed, and maybe even derailed for good. The findings were supposed to be released just weeks before the Texas Republican Primary vote.

One person watching this case with eyes wide open now is Dorenda Lynn Brokofsky. She was on the jury in the Willingham arson trial back in 1992 and she told me today, she hasn’t slept very much since. All these years later, Brokofsky wonders if Willingham was innocent, even though she decided along with the others at the time that he was guilty.

We spoke by phone from her home in the midwest, where she moved after leaving Corsicana, where the fire took place. She dropped a couple of bombshells that left many of us here at AC360° shaking our heads.

She told me, “My dad was a fire marshall for eight years in Corsicana.” He wasn’t the fire marshall at the time of the Willingham fire, but she had a connection. And get this, she said her family was “good friends” with Douglas Fogg. Fogg was the deputy fire marshall and a key witness in the case. Fogg’s determination that the fire was arson really helped send Willingham to death row.

I interviewed Douglas Fogg years ago about this case and he told me he still stands by his findings and believes Willingham set the fire. I asked him if he’s at all concerned he may have sent an innocent man to his death? He said, simply, “No.”

But back to the juror who knew Investigator Fogg. How could prosecutors, the judge, and even the defense, let a woman on the jury who was “good friends” with a key witness for the prosecution and the deputy investigator? Wouldn’t that be a mistrial? Too late for Todd Willingham now, but the juror told me, “I told them I knew Mr. Fogg but they didn’t care.”

To this day, Brokofsky isn’t sure Willingham was guilty. “When you’re sitting there with all those facts, there was nothing else we could see. Now I don’t know. I can’t tell you he’s innocent, I can’t say 100 percent he’s guilty,” Dorenda said.

“I don’t sleep at night because of a lot of this,” she told me. “I have gone back and forth in my mind trying to think of anything that we missed. I don’t like the fact that years later someone is saying maybe we made a mistake. That the facts aren’t what they could’ve been.”

Brokofsky said, “I’ve got to stand in front of my God one day and explain what I did.”

To be fair, Todd Willingham wasn’t perfect. He had a history and was known around town for domestic disputes with his wife. Texas Governor Rick Perry, who has always said there was “overwhelming” evidence Willingham was guilty, just yesterday called him a “monster” and said he had tried to beat his wife into having an abortion, suggesting Willingham did not want the children. Willingham’s stepmother told me they did fight, but she “never saw any bruises on his wife.”

When I told the juror that arson science has changed over the years and that at least half a dozen arson experts now say the fire was not arson and not intentionally set, Brokofsky got so upset she had to get off the phone. She said she needed some time to “process this.”

Imagine, wondering all your life, if you sent an innocent man to the death chamber?


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