If you were hoping the state of Texas would be open to changing how arson investigations should be done, then the hearing was a disappointment. Still, some good things happened.
Speaking at a special meeting of the Texas Forensic Science Commission, which is examining the science used to convict Willingham, the invited experts had little positive to say about an investigation they characterized as incomplete and investigators they criticized for improperly jumping to unjustified conclusions.
“Everything documented post-fire was just as consistent with an accidental fire as an intentional fire,” said John DeHaan , author of “Kirk’s Fire Investigation,” a widely used textbook. “You have really no basis for concluding this was arson.”
But the commission also heard from an official in the state fire marshal’s office who stood by the arson conclusion, saying it was reached after a thorough, professional investigation and supported by the evidence.
Assistant State Fire Marshal Ed Salazar admitted that in the years since 1991, science has determined that some of the evidence used to convict Willingham does not necessarily point to arson. But, he said, tests that found a combustible liquid under the front door and the presence of certain burn patterns support such a finding.
“They followed the protocols; they followed the practices that were available and being used at the time,” Salazar said. “I believe the conclusions they reached can be scientifically sound.”
Fire Marshal officials appeared before the Texas Forensic Science Commission at a hearing in downtown Austin to publicly answer questions for the first time about their handling of the Willingham case. Assistant Fire Marshal Ed Salazar told the commissioners today that his office stands behind the Willingham investigation and its conclusions.
In the past 15 years, scientific experiments have proved false many of the old assumptions that fire investigators relied on, including many in the Willingham case. But no matter. Salazar said if this case were being probed today, his office might reach similar findings. That’s a scary thought.
As Salazar presented his evidence and contended that the slides still supported a finding of arson, it became clear that the field of fire investigation hadn’t come quite as far as we thought. His presentation relied on outdated notions, what some fire scientists have taken to calling “old wives tales.”
For instance, Salazar showed photos of burn patterns on the floor of the Willingham house that were labeled “pour patterns.” Investigators alleged this is where Willingham poured an accelerant to start the blaze. Salazar contended that even under today’s standards, pour patterns can be potential evidence of arson.
In reality, scientists now know that after a fire goes to flashover stage, which this fire did, investigators can glean very little information from the burn patterns on the floor. That’s because during flashover, the fire will scorch the floor. So after flashover, burns on the floor tell you nothing about how the fire started.
Salazar also showed photos of burned holes in the floor. This is another “old wives tale.” Salazar claimed that deep burning on the floor could indicate the presence of an accelerant. (In fact, the opposite is true, as DeHaan later explained in his rebuttal testimony. Repeated scientific testing has shown that gasoline and other accelerants burn off quickly, making it “very difficult, if not impossible, for the fire to burn through the floor,” DeHaan said. Typically, only a fire that goes to flashover can burn long enough to consume the floor. So, the deep burning on the floor couldn’t have been caused by an accelerant, but was simply the byporduct of the fire going to flashover.)
Undeterred, Salazar plowed ahead. He said Vasquez had followed the scientific method and drawn proper conclusions. “[The finding of arson] is a judgment call ultimately coming down to opinions.” The fire scientists might assert that fire investigators relied on their opinions for too long rather than verifiable scientific fact.
But everyone would probably agree with what Salazar said next: “There is an underlying tension between the scientific community and the people doing the down and dirty work.”
Reading this, I can only hope I’m never called to serve on a jury in an arson case, because I’d have to tell the judge that I would be unable to vote for conviction because I have no faith in the state’s ability to determine whether or not arson was actually the cause. Before the Willingham case distracted everybody, the purpose of the Forensic Science Commission was to evaluate the methods being used in (among other things) arson cases. If nothing else, it is now crystal clear that the state of Texas does not believe in using science when investigating suspicious fires. If the Forensic Science Commission does not make strong recommendations for how to fix this, then everything it has done will have been a waste of time and effort. Given the number of people currently sitting in jail because of questionable arson convictions, that would be a bigger tragedy than the Willingham case. Grits, who also attended, provides a detailed writeup as well.