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More on the Willingham report

Now that the Texas Commission on Forensic Sciences has received its report on the botched investigation of Cameron Todd Willingham and the likelihood that he was convicted and executed for a non-crime, will that help improve forensic standards so that tragedies like this can be avoided in the future?

Questions of investigators’ competence in the tragic case — and of Willingham’s possible innocence — vaulted to center stage last week when nationally renowned fire expert Craig Beyler blasted the accuracy of the early probes in a study commissioned by the Texas Forensic Science Commission.

Beyler’s review joins two earlier expert reports in faulting the work of Texas Deputy Fire Marshal Manuel Vasquez, whose testimony was key to Willingham’s conviction.

Barry Scheck, co-director of the Innocence Project, hailed Beyler’s findings as corroboration of a 2006 study sponsored by his group.

“There is a powerful case for those who have the stomach to look at it that an innocent man in Texas went to his death,” Scheck said. “This was not arson, much less an arson murder case.”

Scheck said he hopes publicity about the Harvard-trained Beyler’s report will boost congressional interest in a National Research Council call for a body to set standards for U.S. forensics laboratories and professionals and oversee education. The research council found serious deficiencies in the current system but stopped short of calling for old criminal cases to be reopened.

The commission could issue a final report in the Willingham case next spring. I can’t wait to see what they say, and if they go where the evidence takes them or if they try to weasel out of it. In the meantime, given enough resources, national standards for forensics (which, I must confess, it hadn’t occurred to me that we don’t already have) should be easy to sell. Just get some “CSI” actors, plus Abby from “NCIS”, and have them do a bunch of promos in favor of the idea. I bet they’d work cheap for something like this. Someone needs to make this happen.

Of course, you will have to overcome guys like this, who would surely become the Sarah Palin of archaic arson investigations if given the media exposure.

That question still stirs passions among those closely associated with the case. Most surprising is the view of Willingham’s first attorney, Waco lawyer David Martin.

“He’s a classic textbook psychopath,” Martin said of his former client. “He’s among the 6 percent of the population who don’t have a conscience.”

Martin, a former policeman, dismissed Beyler’s report. “Vasquez was one of the most competent and forthright witnesses I’ve seen,” he said. “He was an honest man. He did a good job.”

Martin said he examined the burned-out residence and found what he considered clear-cut evidence of arson. “It was quite obvious he poured accelerant on the floor and set the house on fire,” he said.

Yeah, all the experts are wrong and my dime-store psychoanalysis is all you need to know. And the more guys like him say stuff like that, the more they’ll be quoted as “the other side”, as if there were one in this. Grits and the Texas Moratorium Network have more.

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  1. EricPWJohnson says:

    First the report clearly said they could not confirm arson and did not state a definitive cause for the blaze.

    Second the guy confessed in prison to more than one witness

    Third Witnessess at the scene give strong testimoney that he was not concerned with the fire until people started running over to see, he watched it build for several minutes

    Fourth he has a long criminal record – taking the word of a criminal who watched his kids burn to death is iffy at best

  2. the report clearly said they could not confirm arson

    Um, wouldn’t that right there count as reasonable doubt? Actually, wouldn’t that right there suggest there never should have been an arrest? The whole point of this is that there was no crime. You yourself, in attempting to rationalize what happened, just cited the most important evidence of that.

  3. Philip says:

    First, the report that convinced a jury of his guilt has been by experts of arson fires called entirely worthless. It was based off myths about fires, all of which, had been rejected by forensic science. The report that convicted him had no basis in reality.

    Second, the witness in prison admits to being heavily medicated at the time, all the time, and that everyone knew he wasn’t reliable and that he was unable to recall things, and was also easily manipulated.

    Third, the witness at the scene who felt that Willingham didn’t do enough, also thought maybe he killed his kids because the kids interrupted his dart game. That witness was a neighbor who didn’t like Willingham, and you’ll find witnesses to come forwards who will admit to anything if they also think you have scientific evidence like the bogus fire report. They think they are doing good by lying. Firefighters at the scene had to restrain Willingham and eventually cuff him to stop him from returning to the building.

    Fourth, his criminal record ended years before his marriage.

    Why does it bother you so much that he was convicted on crap evidence?

  4. Baby Snooks says:

    The veracity of arson investigations are being questioned in other cases. The Medina case in particular. Which of course adds to the question about the Willingham case.

  5. EricPWJohnson says:

    From the 5th circuit

    that Willingham poured an accelerant on the floor of the

    twins’ bedroom, the floor of the hallway outside their bedroom, and

    around the front door and lit three separate fires. There was also

    evidence that, before setting the fires, he burned his two-year-old

    daughter’s arm and forehead so as to make it appear that the fire

    was caused by the child playing with fire………

    In addition, there was testimony that Willingham refused to try to

    rescue his children from the fire; that he exhibited a lack of

    concern or grief in the hospital after the fire; that he did not

    sustain any substantial injuries; that he displayed a carefree

    attitude the day after the fire; that he told arson investigators

    on the day of the children’s funeral that they might find something

    on the floor of the twins’ bedroom because he had poured cologne

    there prior to the fire; that on the day of the children’s funeral

    he sought help from the arson investigators to find his dartboard

    in the ruins of his house; and that a container containing traces

    of kerosene was found on the porch and a similar petroleum

    distillate was found on the wood threshold of the front door.

    Moreover, there was testimony that, while in jail awaiting trial,

    Willingham confessed to an inmate that he started the fire in order

    to hide evidence of recent child abuse. Finally, in addition to

    the one inadmissible opinion given by Vasquez, he also gave

    admissible opinion testimony that a child could not have set the

    fire and that Willingham’s story did not match the physical

    evidence and was contradicted by his lack of injuries.

    The magistrate judge concluded that because the opinion testimony was

    either admissible or harmless, Willingham could not establish any

    prejudice as the result of his appellate counsel’s failure to raise

    the issue. The district court agreed with the magistrate judge

    that Willingham was not prejudiced by his appellate counsel’s

    failure to raise the issue on appeal, because any error would have

    been harmless in the light of the substantial evidence of

    Willingham’s guilt.

    Grits this was in full acknowledge that there may have been a controversy whether hr set the fire or not. Albeit the Fifth Circuit disregarded the opinion of Vasquez and still upheld Texas v willinghan with the full knowledge that it would lead to his execution.