Before leaving, though, I did attend an impromptu press conference outside the courthouse at which a statement was released by Willingham's ex-wife, Stacy Kuykendall, reiterating her claim that her ex-husband confessed the crime in her final visit with him just before his execution. See Stephen Kreytak's coverage from the Austin Statesman of the press event.
The problem with her statement is that it contradicts things she's said in the past, including statements under oath, particularly about whether they had been experiencing marital troubles or were fighting immediately before the fire. The statement released today claims that "the night before the fire we got into an argument" and Kuykendall told Willingham she planned to divorce him. However, as reported by David Grann of the New Yorker, "During the penalty phase of the trial, she testified under oath. Once more, she never mentioned that they had fought the night before the fire or that she had threatened to divorce him, and she said that she was convinced he was innocent. 'He’s never hurt those kids,' she said."
Grann even quoted the prosecutor in the case (now a district judge) lamenting Kuykendall's contradictory statements: “She’s given very different stories about what happened on this particular day right up to the date of his execution ... It’s hard for me to make heads or tails of anything she said or didn’t say.”
What's more, while Kuykendall claims her ex-husband confessed to her scant days before his execution, she gave an interview with a reporter immediately after that final visit in which she said she now believed he was guilty but that he did not confess when she spoke to him (FWIW, last year I filed an open records request asking for any recording from that visit, but TDCJ implausibly replied that no such records exist.)
Watching Kuykendall as she stood mute by her high-powered lawyer, former US Attorney Johnny Sutton, who did all the talking, I couldn't help but reach the same conclusion as in this earlier Grits post:
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 continue to regret that the case chosen as the poster child for flawed arson testimony was a death penalty case where the defendant has already been executed. That's because the Culture War battles surrounding capital punishment have continually overshadowed the debate over arson science and now-discredited forensics. Death penalty proponents keep skewering arson expert Craig Beyler for his critical report to the Forensic Science Commission, ignoring the fact that eight other experts who've examined the case reached the same conclusions. Meanwhile many opponents of the death penalty can't wait to "prove" Willingham's innocence, not because they hope it will lead to other exonerations based on exposing flawed arson forensics, but because they falsely believe that the execution of an innocent person would sway public opinion against the death penalty.
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.
For my part, I'd just like the experts to come to grips with exactly what is and isn't good science on the subject (a debate I was hoping would happen at the Court of Inquiry since John Bradley won't let it happen at the Forensic Science Commission) and then somehow, some way, go back to make sure innocent people haven't been falsely convicted based on junk science. Todd Willingham is dead and no Court of Inquiry, whatever the outcome, will cause him to spring back to life. At best, revisiting junk science in this case might help others going forward, but that would be more likely to happen if the debate were centered on the need for accurate forensics instead of defending or attacking the death penalty.