AUSTIN -- One of the state's most long-lived and controversial death penalty cases has taken yet another twist.
After three-year-old Amber and one-year-old twins Karmon and Kameron Willingham died in a 1991 fire that consumed their Corsicana home, their father, Cameron Todd Willingham, was found guilty of murder by arson. Willingham was executed in 2004, but the case didn't end there.
"You could not come to the conclusion reasonably, professionally that they were arsons," fire science expert Dr. Craig L. Beyler told KVUE in a 2011 interview, well after a forensic review cast serious doubt on the scientific evidence used to convict him. Despite advances in arson investigation that rendered the evidence questionable, Willingham's conviction would be upheld.
"My ex-husband murdered my daughters before he was executed," ex-wife Stacy Kuykendall told KVUE in October 2010. "He told me he did it. He stood and watched while their tiny bodies burned."
On Friday, attorneys with the Innocence Project claimed they can prove a key witness in the case was persuaded to lie under oath, offering a stack of documents including a handwritten retraction submitted by prison inmate Johnny Webb before Willingham's execution. Willingham's supporters say the retraction was hidden away, along with documentation showing Webb's charges were reduced following his testimony.
"That's a very troubling fact that someone who was relying upon the truthfulness and credibility of this individual to bolster what was a failing scientific case would not ensure that that be part of the process," said criminal defense attorney Gerald H. Goldstein.
Earlier this year the 83rd Texas Legislature passed the Michael Morton Act, which among other legal changes requires prosecutors to share evidence with the defense that could lead to a case being overturned. Willingham's supporters suggest that if that law had been in place at the time, it could have stopped his execution.
"This is a major victory for integrity and fairness in our judicial system," Gov. Rick Perry (R-TX) said at the bill's signing ceremony in May where he was joined by the bill's namesake, exoneree Michael Morton. Cleared by DNA evidence after spending 25 years in prison, Morton appeared Friday in support of Willingham.
"How can you not? My heart broke when I met these two people," Morton told KVUE, looking to Willingham's stepmother Eugenia Willingham and cousin Patricia Cox Willingham. "When the things that happened to me happened, it should have resonated with everybody, and it's not a whole lot different than the Willingham situation."
"We just have to put it to bed and then pull it back out and then put it to bed, because I can't exist if I think about this all the time," said Eugenia Willingham. "I'm his mother. I don't want people to think that I raised someone worse than a murderer, really. And those were my only grandchildren. So I do this for them."
Supporters delivered a request to personally plead their case before the governor in light of the new evidence.
"This was on his watch but perhaps was not his fault," said Goldstein. "We now have evidence that he didn't get to see, evidence that none of us were aware of. It's that time to bring it out into the open and have a fair and honest review."
After a brief meeting with a member of Perry's legal staff, Patricia Cox Willingham told media, "We're cautiously optimistic. We were given no guarantees about anything."
"The Yogi Berra thing about predicting the future comes to mind," said Morton, who declined to speculate as to whether Perry would consent to reopen the conversation. "I have no idea. It's just in his lap. It's hopefully on his heart."
The governor's office told KVUE Friday afternoon it had just received the request, and as is standard with all meeting requests, the office will take a look at what's available on the governor's schedule.