Forensic Science commission recommends examination of capital arson case

This has the potential to be a political earthquake.

Cameron Willingham never stopped insisting he was innocent of murder. Even as he lay strapped to a gurney awaiting execution, the burly Corsicana auto mechanic denied setting the house blaze in which his 1-year-old twins and 2-year-old stepdaughter were incinerated.

Now, 17 years after the deadly fire and four years after the execution, a state commission charged with investigating negligence and misconduct complaints against forensic labs has agreed to look into allegations that Willingham was convicted and sentenced to die on fire officials’ faulty testimony.

Meeting Friday in Houston, the nine-member Texas Forensic Science Commission unanimously authorized the investigation in response to a complaint filed by The Innocence Project, a New York City-based group dedicated to exonerating the wrongfully convicted.

The commission also agreed to investigate a 1986 West Texas arson fire in which two people died. Oilfield worker Ernest Willis, 63, was sentenced to die for the crime. But just months after Willingham’s execution, a judge found Willis had been convicted on faulty scientific evidence and he was freed.

“These two cases in Texas are just the tip of the iceberg,” Innocence Project co-director Barry Scheck said in an e-mail statement. “Across Texas and around the country, people are convicted of arson based on junk science that has been completely discredited for years.”

This Chicago Trib article from 2004 goes into a lot of detail about the Willingham case, as does this peer review panel report (PDF) commissioned by the Innocence Project. I’ll give you the Executive Summary so you can get a feel for it:

Neither the fire that killed the three Willingham children nor the fire that killed Elizabeth Grace Belue and Gail Joe Allison were incendiary fires. The artifacts examined and relied upon by the fire investigators in both cases are the kind of artifacts routinely created by accidental fires that progress beyond flashover.

The State’s expert witnesses in both cases relied on interpretations of “indicators” that they were taught constituted evidence of arson. While we have no doubt that these witnesses believed what they were saying, each and every one of the indicators relied upon have since been scientifically proven to be invalid.

To the extent that there are still investigators in Texas and elsewhere, who interpret low burning, irregular fire patterns and collapsed furniture springs as indicators of incendiary fires, there will continue to be serious miscarriages of justice.

Continuous (and in some cases, remedial) training and professional development of fire investigators is required. Additionally, participants in the justice system need to become better educated, and more skeptical of opinion testimony for which there is no scientific support, and need to ensure that defendants in arson cases are afforded the opportunity to retain independent experts to evaluate charges that a fire was incendiary.

In the cases of individuals already convicted using what is now known to be bad science (or no science), the Courts should treat the “new” knowledge as “newly discovered evidence.” It was resistance to this concept that allowed the State to execute Mr. Willingham, even though it was known that the evidence used to convict him was invalid.

Links via Grits. What do you think might happen if and when the state of Texas is no longer able to claim that it has never executed a provably innocent person?

Look, I’m as much a believer in the mythology of criminal forensic science as anyone. There’s a lot of good work done in crime labs, and they have been justly lauded for a long time because of it. But there are also a lot of problems with that business, and they need to be addressed, lest we create more Cameron Willinghams. Really, there are a whole raft of reforms that need to be put in place, for prosaic things like eyewitness identifications, evidence retention, and other problematic areas. I mean, do we want to feel confident that in general we’re putting the right people away or not? Seems pretty simple to me. I’m not even sure I can tell what the argument against is. But I don’t think the impetus to do anything is going to be there until something shakes people up. I think this may be it, so I’m very much looking forward to the Commission’s report.

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