Earlier this year, the Texas Observer ran a series by Dave Mann, "Burn Patterns," that examined two questionable arson convictions. Mann has a recent post at his Contrarian blog at the Observer, "The Importance of Willingham's Story."
While I was away, the Cameron Todd Willingham case became national news. Willingham, as most of you probably know by now, was executed in 2004 for allegedly killing his three children in a 1991 house fire in North Texas. Most arson experts believe he was innocent. I've been following the Willingham case while working on an investigative series about people wrongly convicted of arson.
This week's New Yorker features a 16,000 word story on Willingham by David Grann. Lots of fascinating detail in the piece. Grann hits on many of the problems with Texas' criminal justice system. (He also has a wonderful and spot on description of Gerald Hurst, an Austin-based arson expert I've been working with for my own stories.)
Hurst believes that faulty arson forensics may have sent hundreds of innocent people to prison. There are nearly 800 Texans serving sentences for arson related crimes.
Those include Curtis Severns -- the Plano gun shop owner serving a 27 year sentence in federal prison for a crime he almost certainly didn't commit. Read his story here.
And Ed Graf -- a case Hurst describes as perhaps even more flawed than the one against Willingham. (The third story in the series will be out in our October 3 issue.)
It's too late for Willingham. But perhaps the power of his story can help save many others.
Mann's report, "Burn Patterns: Curtis Severns is serving 27 years for an arson he almost certainly didn't commit. Sloppy fire science put him there," appeared in the April 3 edition of the Observer. Here's the beginning:
It was just past 1 a.m. on a Saturday night when the phone woke Curtis Severns. The security company was calling to say his gun shop was on fire. He roused himself, left his wife, Sue, and their newborn, and began the hour-long drive from the North Texas town of Sherman to his store in Plano. That was Aug. 21, 2004. His life hasn’t been the same since.
For nearly three years, Severns has been in federal prison. Convicted of intentionally starting the fire in his gun shop, he has 25 more years on his sentence. Severns has maintained his innocence all along. As in many arson cases, he was convicted almost exclusively by the testimony of fire investigators who relied on assumptions that some of the leading arson experts in the country now say are false. In fact, new evidence and an Observer investigation reveal that Severns remains in federal prison in Beaumont for a crime he likely didn’t commit.
By the time Severns reached his gun shop that night, the Plano Fire Department had extinguished the flames. But his business was clearly ruined. A local fire investigator immediately suspected arson. He believed the burn patterns indicated the fire had started in three different places. What investigators call “multiple points of origin” usually indicates arson because accidental fires almost never begin in several places at once. The locals called in agents from the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol Tobacco and Firearms, who had jurisdiction because the fire had ignited in a gun shop. Federal investigators began to build an arson case against Severns.
There wasn’t much to go on. No witnesses saw him set the fire. There were no traces of gasoline or other accelerants used to start the blaze. And there was little motive for Severns to burn down his own business and its inventory. Prosecutors would later claim he did it for the insurance money. That seems odd. Severns’ family wasn’t struggling financially; his wife earned a six-figure salary. Moreover, five months before the fire, Severns had reduced his insurance policy limit to far less than the shop was worth. If he’d done it for the insurance, he would have lost money on the deal.
Mann's second article, "Victim of Circumstance? d Graf was sentenced to life for burning his two young stepsons alive. Two decades later, science may exonerate him," appeared in the May 29 issue of the Observer. A small excerpt:
Even 21 years after Ed Graf went prison, Don Youngblood recalls nearly every aspect of the case. He remembers the jury foreman’s name, testimony from specific firemen, the look on the judge’s face when the verdict was read. Youngblood was the investigator for Graf’s defense team, and he believes Graf is innocent.
Youngblood is a former cop who’s worked as a private investigator for three decades. He’s handled about 50 capital murder cases over the years. Quite a few defendants, he says, were obviously guilty. A few others he wasn’t sure about. “Mr. Graf is the one case out of 50 that I’m thoroughly convinced that he did not do it,” Youngblood says. The case haunts him. He chokes back tears. “It’s one case I never forget about,” he says.