Fire marshal clings to Willingham arson report

Oh, give it up, already.

The State Fire Marshal’s Office stands behind its controversial conclusion that Cameron Todd Willingham started the house fire that killed his three children in 1991, contradicting arson experts and scientists who insist the agency relied on bad science in its investigation.

In a pointed letter to the Texas Forensic Science Commission, which is nearing the end of a contentious review of the Willingham arson investigation, Fire Marshal Paul Maldonado defended his agency’s handling of the case that led to Willingham’s execution in 2004.

In July, the commission announced a tentative finding that investigators employed “flawed science” — including now-debunked beliefs that certain fire behaviors point to arson — to conclude that Willingham intentionally set fire to his Corsicana home.

But Maldonado said his agency’s investigation remains valid, even after modern, scientific arson standards are applied.

“We stand by the original investigator’s report and conclusions,” Maldonado said in his Aug. 20 letter to the commission. “Should any subsequent analysis be performed to test other theories and possibilities of the cause and origin of the fire, we will of course re-examine the report again.”


Maldonado, who became state fire marshal in 2004 after rising to assistant chief for the Austin Fire Department, acknowledged that his agency used many of the principles and practices espoused by NFPA 921 when Vasquez — who died in the mid-1990s — investigated the Willingham fire.

Attached to Maldonado’s letter was a point-by-point analysis showing that Vasquez’s arson finding can be supported by NFPA 921, which says melted aluminum, burn patterns, broken glass and other fire phenomena “may also be caused by ignitable liquids.”

The attachment also suggested that commission members take into account that Vasquez’s conclusions were based on a personal review of the fire scene and interviews with Willingham, who offered conflicting accounts of the fire.

I know it’s hard to admit to a mistake, but this is just sad. Many, many experts have examined the Willingham evidence, and none of them have agreed with this assessment. One might also argue that the “personal review” of the fire scene isn’t an advantage, as it may have made the investigators at the time too close to it. Three little kids died in that fire – that’s got to have an effect on the people who were right there to examine the scene. What Willingham said in the interviews also shouldn’t matter as far as the physical evidence goes. What he says may be confirmed or contradicted by what is found at the scene, but it can’t be determinative. That’s a job for the prosecutor, not the investigator.

The Commission meets today to finally discuss the Willingham case. They’ve already heard some grievances from a couple of Senators.

State Sens. Rodney Ellis, D-Houston, and Juan “Chuy” Hinojosa, D-McAllen, sent a letter Monday to the commission with a list of grievances about the way it has conducted the Willingham investigation. The senators wrote that the process has been too secretive, that it has been diluted and that the primary question in the case has not been addressed. They wrote: “It appears that you are not interested in looking at the ‘big picture’ component of this complaint: Did the State Fire Marshal commit professional negligence or misconduct if it failed to inform the courts, prosecutors, the Board of Pardons and Parole, and the Governor that flawed arson science may have been used to convict hundreds or thousands of defendants?”

The senators wrote that more than 225 people each year are sent to Texas prisons on arson convictions, and more than 700 current prisons are serving time for arson. “Texans need to be confident that the flawed science used to convict and execute Mr. Willingham wasn’t used to wrongly imprison many others,” they wrote.

We ought to know once and for all if the Commission will do the job it’s supposed to do or if it needs to be taken back to the Lege for an overhaul. I fear a whitewash is coming, but at least that will serve to clarify the issue. And who knows, maybe we’ll see another revolt by Commission members. Stranger things have happened. Dave Mann has more.

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