The commission’s nearly 50-page report—the product of a high-profile, frequently stalled investigation—is an odd mix. It documents at length the flawed state of fire investigation in Texas and details in general terms the kinds of outdated evidence that led to Willingham’s 1992 conviction for starting the house fire that killed his three daughters and eventually led to his 2004 execution. In that sense, it confirms the opinions of nine national experts who have examined the case and found no evidence of arson.
The report also makes 17 recommendations on how to improve the level of fire investigation in Texas. And, most importantly, it urges the Texas Fire Marshal’s Office to reexamine older arson cases for similar flaws.
Yet for all its documentation of general problems with arson evidence, the report rarely connects these flaws directly to the Willingham case. In fact, the report sidesteps two of the central questions: Were the original fire investigators on the Willingham case negligent and did the Fire Marshal’s office have a duty to inform the governor or the courts prior to Willingham’s 2004 execution that the evidence in the case was no longer reliable?
So what do we make of this schizophrenic document?
Willingham’s relatives—his stepmother Eugenia Willingham and his cousin Patricia Cox—pronounced themselves satisfied with the commission’s work. “What this commission has done will have a significant impact on the justice system,” Cox said.
Stephen Saloom with the Innocence Project was clearly frustrated that the commission couldn’t address the negligence issue. But, he added, given that limitation, the commission did commendable work during the past two days. “It’s a good report,” Saloom said. “It makes clear that the old forms of arson evidence are not reliable and need to be corrected…and that the old cases that may have been tainted by this evidence have an opportunity for review. This gives a chance for justice for all those past cases where people may have been wrongly convicted of arson.”
Indeed, among the report’s 17 recommendations is much-needed reform. The commission recommends improving training and certifications for fire investigators and ensuring that training curriculum include fire science and fire dynamics. It recommends the Fire Marshal’s office conduct internal audits and create a peer review team to monitor the quality of its fire investigations. The report also recommends requiring lawyers and judges take continuing education classes focused specifically on forensic science.
Perhaps most importantly, it urges the Fire Marshal’s office to reexamine older cases. As I’ve written before, many of the 750 people current in Texas prisons on arson convictions may be innocent. The state desperately needs an official inquiry into older arson cases.
Unfortunately, the FSC doesn’t have the power to do more than urge the Fire Marshall to act, and there’s still an inquiry into the AG’s office to determine just what authority the Commission has. That will be John Bradley’s parting shot. This probably was the best report we could have gotten given Bradley’s endless meddling. Maybe with the Willingham matter more or less settled and no election looming, Rick Perry will appoint someone less egregious as Bradley’s replacement. Yeah, yeah, I know.