A fire investigation that led to the execution of a man in the deaths of his three young children was so seriously flawed that its conclusion of arson can't be supported, a fire expert hired by the state said in a new report.
In a report to the Texas Forensic Science Commission released Tuesday, Craig Beyler said the fire investigation in Cameron Todd Willingham's case didn't adhere to the standards of care in place at the time, nor to current standards.
Beyler, chairman of the London-based International Association for Fire Safety Science, said in the report that the opinions of a state fire official in the case were "nothing more than a collection of personal beliefs that have nothing to do with science-based fire investigation."
The commission, created in 2005 to review forensic misconduct allegations, requested the independent analysis after the Innocence Project submitted claims of questionable evidence in the cases of Willingham and another man who was convicted in a similar case but was later released.
Eric Ferrero, spokesman for the Innocence Project, a New York-based organization dedicated to exonerating wrongfully convicted people, said Beyler's findings on the Willingham case "confirms what several experts have found over the last five years after reviewing thousands of pages of evidence."
"Every expert who has looked at this case has determined there was no reason to call it arson," he said.
Willingham, 36, was executed in 2004. He was convicted of setting the fire that killed 2-year-old Amber and 1-year-old twins Karmon and Kameron on Dec. 23, 1991, in their Corsicana home.
He told The Associated Press before his execution that he was innocent. "The most distressing thing is the state of Texas will kill an innocent man and doesn't care they're making a mistake," he said.
Willingham's cousin, Patricia Cox, of Ardmore, Okla., said she has never doubted her cousin's innocence. Family members tried for years to free him.
"I would definitely like the state of Texas to take responsibility and admit in fact they wrongfully executed Todd Willingham," she said. "Is that going to happen? Probably not. I'm not optimistic."
Willingham's stepmother, Eugenia Willingham, called the report another step in the "long, drawn-out process" of clearing his name.
"He lived 12 years on death row," she said. "He went through hell, I'm telling you. It was probably worse than hell."
UPI has, "Man may have been executed for non-arson."
"The investigators had poor understandings of fire science," wrote Beyler, chairman of the International Association for Fire Safety Science and author of several books about fire investigation.
The report also criticized one fire investigator for telling jurors that most of the 1,200-1,500 fires he investigated were arsons, which "far exceeds any rational estimate" and reflects his "predisposition to find arson in his cases," Beyler said.
"Experts Denounce Forensic Evidence in Texas Death Penalty Case," is Radley Balko's post at Reason's Hit & Run blog.
Beyler is the ninth forensic arson specialist to review the case. The other eight came to similar conclusions. The other major piece of evidence against Willingham was the testimony of a jailhouse informant who claimed Willingham confessed to him. Jailhouse snitch testimony tends to be a pretty common second piece of evidence in these stories. Funny how that works.Earlier coverage begins here. The Beyler report is here in Adobe .pdf format.