I guess, then, that task will fall on me. It must be said: Not everything Stacy Kuykendall has said about the Todd Willingham case is true. Either she is lying now or she lied in the past, including under oath at her ex-husband's trial. There are just no two ways about it. As the New Yorker's David Grann pointed out, her recent statement:
directly contradicts numerous previous statements she has made: in interviews with police and fire investigators; in testimony during the trial; in letters to public officials and Willingham’s lawyers; and in her comments to the press ...Now she claims they'd argued and she'd threatened divorce soon before the fatal fire and that Willingham confessed to her at the 11th hour. But she told the Corsicana Sun immediately after that last death-row visit that Willingham still maintained his innocence, describing his version of the story in significant detail. By that time as his final days approached, she told the Sun, Kuykendall herself had come to be convinced of her ex-husband's guilt, but she insisted Willingham never confessed and still maintained the fire was an accident.
After the fire, police and fire investigators interrogated Kuykendall. Each time, she said that she and Todd had not fought the night before the blaze, and that they had gone to Kmart to pick up photographs of the family to get ready for their Christmas celebration. She never mentioned that she intended to divorce Willingham, whom she had married three months earlier. She said he would not have hurt the children.
She had this exchange with a police detective and the deputy state fire marshal, Manuel Vasquez:
VASQUEZ: Did you and your husband have any disagreements on the night after Kmart?Kuykendall continued to give the same version of events long after the fire and after she and Willingham were divorced. In 1999, she spoke to Elizabeth Gilbert, a teacher and playwright from Houston who had begun to investigate Willingham’s case. According to a tape recording of the conversation, Kuykendall made it clear that she still believed that Willingham was innocent and that he had no motive to hurt their children. She noted that he had an inadequate defense, saying of one of his lawyers, “He’s not a good lawyer. He’s just not.” She also said the prosecution was motivated to find anyone to blame. “I think they were after somebody,” she said. “They didn’t care who.” She said, “I don’t think he did it…. He was a mean person to me, but something like that, no.”
KUYKENDALL: No. No we didn’t.
VASQUEZ: Did he get angry at you for any reason?
KUYKENDALL: No. ...
I feel sorry for Stacy Kuykendall and I know this must seem like a never ending nightmare that has devastated and defined her entire adult life. (Somebody please explain to me again how the death penalty provides "closure" for victims?) As though losing three children isn't a big enough tragedy, no one has ever believed her, it seems. When she testified in her husband's defense, prosecutors considered her as a dupe. Now that she's changed her mind about what happened, these latest recollections of her ex-husband's confession simply cannot be reconciled with all she's said in the past.
I don't know which time Kuykendall was telling the truth or what was her motive when she didn't, but I know for sure it can't all be accurate. That fact can't be overcome just from sympathy for her unfortunate and painful history. It's regrettable that she put herself in that position in such a high-profile case, but that's where we are.
It did strike me that there might be a way to find out for sure whether Todd Willingham really confessed. TDCJ is set up to electronically record non-attorney visitations with death row inmates. Their online policies say they "may" record visits, but I've been told in the past they record all of them on death row except those with the inmates' attorneys. To find out for sure, I spoke this morning with TDCJ's lead PR person, Michelle Lyons, but she could not confirm whether all conversations are recorded or only selected ones. No one had ever asked her that question, she said, though I'm willing to bet in light of recent events I won't be the last one who wants to know. So to get more information, I filed an open records request today asking for the following information:
- Any TDCJ policies regarding recording of conversations during death-row inmates' non-attorney visitations, including any policy describing how often recording occurs, under what circumstances, whether every call is recorded, what is done with the recordings, who has access to them, how long they're kept, what documentation must be maintained, etc..
- Any log or record of recordings from visitations for now-deceased death row inmate Cameron Todd Willingham.
- Any log or record of who has accessed or listened to recordings from visitations for now-deceased death row inmate Cameron Todd Willingham.
- The tape or audio file (in whatever format it's maintained in) of any recorded visitations with Cameron Todd Willingham during the month before his execution.
RELATED: Also from the Star-Telegram, Dave Montgomery has a good piece detailing the specific conclusions from testimony by the fire marshal at Todd Willingham's trial that modern arson experts say were flawed and unwarranted. Said one of the nine arson experts who have independently concluded the forensic testimony was flawed, "I really did get sick to my stomach after I reviewed that case ... He could have done it, but he probably didn’t." That's also pretty much my conclusion from everything I've seen so far. That said, if this open records request comes back with a recorded confession, it'd pretty much put an end to the "innocence" debate in this case. The debate over faulty arson forensics, however, is arguably more important at this juncture and deserves a more complete airing whether or not Todd Willingham confessed.