Texas Observer journalist Dave Mann writes, "A Nebulous End to the Willingham Inquiry." I'm singling it out because of his earlier reporting on other arson cases, tainted by old science. Here's the beginning of this must read:
The moment had an air of finality to it.
In a small hearing room in downtown Austin, eight members of the Texas Forensic Science Commission voted this afternoon to adopt their final report on the long-disputed arson conviction of Cameron Todd Willingham. It was a moment five years in the making. The New York-based Innocence Project had originally asked the commission to investigate the case back in 2006. So when the final vote was taken to adopt the report, an Innocence Project staffer and members of Willingham’s family—who claim that Texas executed an innocent man—applauded from their seats in the front row.
It felt like an ending. But what exactly the end result was—like so much in the Willingham saga—seems unclear. If this was the end, it was a nebulous one.
The commission’s nearly 50-page report—the product of a high-profile, frequently stalled investigation—is an odd mix. It documents at length the flawed state of fire investigation in Texas and details in general terms the kinds of outdated evidence that led to Willingham’s 1992 conviction for starting the house fire that killed his three daughters and eventually led to his 2004 execution. In that sense, it confirms the opinions of nine national experts who have examined the case and found no evidence of arson.
The report also makes 17 recommendations on how to improve the level of fire investigation in Texas. And, most importantly, it urges the Texas Fire Marshal’s Office to reexamine older arson cases for similar flaws.
Yet for all its documentation of general problems with arson evidence, the report rarely connects these flaws directly to the Willingham case. In fact, the report sidesteps two of the central questions: Were the original fire investigators on the Willingham case negligent and did the Fire Marshal’s office have a duty to inform the governor or the courts prior to Willingham’s 2004 execution that the evidence in the case was no longer reliable?
The commission refused to address those questions because it’s not clear it has the authority to do so. In January, the commission requested an opinion from the Texas Attorney General’s office on whether it has jurisdiction to determine “professional negligence” in arson cases.
The AG’s opinion is due this summer. But the commission chose to issue a final Willingham report anyway. It’s not exactly clear why the commission was in such a rush, though it’s worth noting that this was likely the last meeting for controversial Chair John Bradley. The Texas Senate is unlikely to confirm Bradley before the end of the legislative session. Perhaps Bradley wanted to finish the Willingham report before he’s removed from the commission and returns exclusively to his day job as Williamson County DA.
Earlier coverage of the FSC meeting begins in the preceding post.
More of Mann's arson journalism begins at the link.