It’s time to move to the next phase and make something good happen.
A state investigation into the science used to convict and execute Cameron Todd Willingham came to a quiet close Friday, but its results might echo across the justice system and the nation’s death penalty debate for years to come.
Making final changes to its report on the Willingham case, the Texas Forensic Science Commission signed off on a document acknowledging that unreliable fire science played a role in the Corsicana man’s conviction for the murder-by-arson deaths of his three young daughters in 1991. He was executed in 2004.
“The world should now know that the evidence relied upon to convict and execute Cameron Todd Willingham for the fire that killed his daughters was based on scientifically invalid and unreliable evidence,” said Stephen Saloom , policy director for the Innocence Project. “By any fair estimate, that indicates he was innocent, that he did not set that fire.”
That’s likely to be the only acknowledgement of such, at least for the foreseeable future. It’s not enough, but Willingham’s family has accepted it.
“It doesn’t bring my son back, but I know they couldn’t do that,” said Willingham’s stepmother, Eugenia Willingham. “Maybe Todd’s name will go down in history as being a part all of this.”
Since his 2004 execution, Willingham’s family has continued a fight to prove his innocence. Willingham’s cousin, Patricia Ann Willingham-Cox, thanked the commission for its work.
“Have we gotten justice for Todd in the state of Texas? No, not yet, but we will,” Cox said. “Has Todd’s death effected needed change? Yes.”
That change could be very large indeed:
The agency’s final report includes a commitment from the state fire marshal’s office — whose investigator was the chief prosecution witness at Willingham’s trial — to review old arson rulings to determine whether convictions were based on now-debunked assumptions.
The Innocence Project of Texas will provide most of the heavy lifting — about 40 forensic science and law students — to help the fire marshal identify and review old arson cases, said Jeff Blackburn, chief lawyer for the Texas nonprofit legal organization.
“I think this is a great opportunity,” Blackburn said during Friday’s commission meeting in Austin. “As far as I know, this is the only example of this kind of cooperation going on anywhere in the country.”
Saloom commended the commission for acknowledging that the scientific understanding of fire behavior has vastly improved over the past 20 years — and for listing now-debunked arson indicators in its final report. That action might ensure that unreliable science no longer taints arson investigations in Texas and could serve as a model for other states grappling with the issue, Saloom said.
Hard to know exactly how many cases there will be to review, though the Texas Observer has a few suggestions for where to start. Really, the question is not about finding bogus convictions, but whether the prosecutors involved will accept the findings or cling to their discredited evidence and fight them on the grounds that having a “final result” and “respecting the jury’s verdict” is more important than an innocent person rotting in jail. There’s no shortage of the latter, after all.