"Thanks to Willingham inquiry, old arson cases getting a new look," is Chuck Lindell's report from the Saturday edition of the Austin American-Statesman.
The state fire marshal's office has agreed to review prior arson investigations to determine if criminal convictions were obtained using bad science or now-debunked assumptions, it was announced Friday.
The review was a key concession sought by the Texas Forensic Science Commission as part of its investigation into the science used to convict, and ultimately execute, Cameron Todd Willingham for the 1991 fire that killed his three young daughters.
Last April, the science commission determined that fire investigators, including a deputy fire marshal, relied on scientifically invalid techniques to rule that Willingham intentionally set fire to his Corsicana home.
Uncomfortable that a poor understanding of fire science could have influenced other investigations, the commission's Willingham report also urged Fire Marshal Paul Maldonado to review his agency's files.
Maldonado agreed to the review earlier this week, Forensic Science Commission Chairman Nizam Peerwani announced Friday.
"I thought that was a wonderful thing," Peerwani said. "There is no legal requirement for retroactive review, no mandate under the law, but there is some ethical and moral duty to do that."
The Dallas Morning News carried, "Texas forensic commission hesitant on Willingham case after attorney general's opinion," by Sommer Ingram.
The state’s forensic science commission, restricted by an opinion from the attorney general, is postponing a final vote on a high-profile arson case that death penalty opponents say may have led an innocent man to his death.
A draft report says the commission will decline to find negligence in the case involving Cameron Todd Willingham.
The state fire marshal’s office agreed this week to many of the Texas Forensic Science Commission’s 17 recommendations for improving arson science and investigation, commission chairman Nizam Peerwani said Friday. Included in these recommendations is a retroactive review of cases in which new scientific knowledge could have an impact.
Commissioners decided Friday to delay a formal vote until October so updated information about the fire marshal could be added.
Willingham was executed in 2004 for what investigators at the time said was an intentional fire set to his Corsicana home to kill his three daughters in 1991. Fire experts have since told the commission that Willingham’s conviction was based on bad science, and the New-York based Innocence Project filed a complaint asking the panel to find professional negligence by the fire investigators.
The case has been a source of criticism of Gov. Rick Perry, including in his campaign for president, because activists say he ignored key evidence suggesting Willingham’s conviction was faulty and failed to stop his execution. Perry has said he’s sure of Willingham’s guilt.
The commission determined previously that the evidence used to convict Willingham of arson-murder was unreliable.
But Attorney General Greg Abbott’s recent opinion prohibits consideration of evidence gathered or tested before the panel’s creation in September 2005, which has left commissioners treading lightly regarding their jurisdiction.
"Panel delays Willingham decision after AG ruling," by Allan Turner in the Houston Chronicle.
The report reiterated 17 recommendations for state and local arson investigators to improve their science, then sidestepped the controversial question of whether arson cops had been negligent or guilty of professional misconduct in the case.
On Friday, commission Chairman Nazim Peerwani told colleagues the fire marshal's office is moving toward meeting those suggestions.
Peerwani and Texas Fire Marshal Paul Maldonado conferred on the recommendations this week, with the fire executive pledging to share any "process improvements" with fire departments throughout the state.
Citing a recent Texas attorney general's opinion indicating the Willingham case was outside the commission's jurisdiction, the draft said no determination of negligence would be made.
Three reviews of the arson investigation, including one commissioned by the panel, found the arson investigation lacking.
"Forensic Panel Calls for Review of Past Arson Cases," by Brandi Grissom for the Texas Tribune,
A review of arson cases to determine whether faulty evidence has led to wrongful convictions has been a main aim of the New York-based Innocence Project, which filed the original complaint launching the commission’s work in the Willingham case. Stephen Saloom, policy director for the national organization, said he was pleased that the review would take place but was disappointed the commission did not take stronger action against the fire marshal’s office. The review of arson cases, he said, should not be left to the discretion of Maldonado, who has said that he stands by the evidence used to convict Willingham.
“It’s hard to understand how the public can have confidence that their recommendations will provide justice,” he said. “The commission is on the right track, but this job is not done.”
Maldonado declined to comment for this story.
Commissioners said they would finalize the Willingham report after their October meeting, and incorporate the fire marshal’s agreements to implement their recommendations.
Saloom said he hoped to convince the commission to take more of a leadership role in ensuring that all previous arson cases are investigated. He said the attorney general’s ruling had made the commission “gun shy.”
“It may have largely neutered this commission’s potential effectiveness and undermined legislators’ clear intent in creating this commission,” Saloom said.
Former commission chairman Sam Bassett, who publicly criticized Perry this week for attempting to squash the Willingham investigation, said Friday that the commission’s decision was a sad one. Bassett was chairman from 2007 until 2009, and the Willingham work began during his tenure. He said he now believes that he was given the boot to provide Perry with political cover.
Earlier coverage of the Forensic Science Commission investigation of the Willingham case begins at the link. The AG Opinon GA 866 is available in Adobe .pdf format.
All Willingham coverage is available through the Todd Willingham index.
David Grann's September 2009 New Yorker article is noted here. Steve Mills and Maurice Possley first reported on the case in a 2004 Chicago Tribune series on junk science. The December 9, 2004 report was titled,"Man executed on disproved forensics."
The Innocence Project has a Todd Willingham resource page which provides a concise overview of the Willingham case with links to all relevant documents.
I also want to point readers back to Dave Mann's enterprise reporting on questionable arson convictions in the Texas Observer.