Back to mobile

The Supposed Willingham Confession

by Published on

On Sunday, Stacy Kuykendall — the ex-wife of Cameron Todd Willingham — gave her first public statement in years. She provided a statement to the Fort Worth Star-Telegram in which she reiterated that, when she met with Willingham on death row just before his 2004 execution, he confessed to starting the 1991 fire that killed their three daughters.

(If you don’t know the details of Willingham’s case, click here.)

The supposed confession is highly problematic. Kuykendall’s story keeps changing. I sympathize with Kuykendall. She experienced unspeakable tragedy. But it’s hard to trust what she’s saying now.

If we had a recording of Willingham confessing, that would be one thing. Unfortunately, only two people know what was said that day. One of them is dead. The other keeps changing her account.

So my advice is this: ignore the whole damn episode.

The notion of a death row confession is enticing. But there are no answers here. It’s a bottomless hole.

If you’re truly interested in trying to figure this out, I wrote about the problems with the supposed confession here. David Grann at the New Yorker has an even more detailed breakdown.

(Grits is also on point, as is Kuffner.)

But it’s a waste of time. Dwelling on the validity of the confession will drive you insane, and it will amount to nothing.

Like I said, ignore it.

Focus instead on the forensics of the case. The flawed arson evidence that convicted Willingham is the heart of the matter.

Some media outlets are blessedly turning their focus to the forensics. I mentioned yesterday an excellent story in the Star-Telegram.

The Dallas Morning News also chimes in with a clear-eyed editorial.

We shouldn’t be re-trying Willingham. The case is irrevocably closed.

But many other people likely were convicted on similarly flawed arson evidence. (I’ve found three of them in a series of stories on faulty arson convictions). We should learn what we can about how and why Willingham was convicted on such bad evidence and then look for innocent people still in jail on bogus arson convictions.

These are the people who can still be helped. 

Dave Mann has been with the Observer since 2003. Before that, he worked as a reporter in Fort Worth and Washington, D.C. He was born and raised in Philadelphia. He thinks border collies are the world’s greatest dogs, and believes in the nourishing powers of pickup basketball.