An outside review of Texas arson convictions has uncovered suspect cases that are expected to be presented to a panel of state fire experts in January.
Advocacy groups say the review could help overturn wrongful convictions.
Those leading the inquiry at the Lubbock-based Innocence Project of Texas are reviewing cases in which investigators relied on “junk science,” since-discredited approaches to analyzing crime-scene evidence and to determining whether fires were intentionally set. They plan to bring their findings to a panel of fire experts assembled by Texas Fire Marshal Chris Connealy.
The review was spurred by a report last year by the Texas Forensic Science Commission, which acknowledged that unreliable science helped lead to Cameron Todd Willingham's conviction for murder by arson in 1992. Willingham, 24, had been charged in connection with the deaths of his three young children in a 1991 fire at their home in Corsicana, about 55 miles south of Dallas. He was executed in 2004.
Innocence Project staff members began their review by searching for arson convictions and then seeking information from more than 1,000 inmates. They received about 250 replies and whittled that down to about 30 cases they wanted to investigate in detail, according to Nick Vilbas, executive director of the Innocence Project of Texas.
They have been pulling trial transcripts for the cases to see what evidence was presented at trial, and they plan to bring questionable cases to the six-member state fire panel when it meets Jan. 7 in Houston, Vilbas told The Times.
“It’s still too early to say how many cases will have bad science involved,” Vilbas said. “There’s a handful that look like they have potential.”
Earlier coverage of the arson case review begins at the link. This is also a good opportunity to point readers to Dave Mann's enterprise reporting on questionable arson convictions in the Texas Observer.