That's the title of Chuck Lindell's report in the Austin American-Statesman on the review being conducted by the Innocence Project of Texas and the State Fire Marshal. It appeared in the Saturday edition.
A long-awaited review of old Texas arson cases — an unprecedented search for wrongful convictions based on bad fire investigation science — is picking up speed and will probably produce the first results in January, participants said Friday.
One suspect case has been identified and about 26 others are being scrutinized for evidence that investigators relied on now-discredited “myths,” instead of science, to determine that the fires were intentionally set, said Nick Vilbas with the Innocence Project of Texas, which is leading the review.
“We hope to be done pretty soon,” Vilbas told the Texas Forensic Science Commission during Friday’s meeting in Austin.
A panel of fire experts, assembled by new Texas Fire Marshal Chris Connealy, is scheduled to hear details of the first batch of suspect cases in January. Their findings would help determine how each case should proceed in the criminal justice system, Connealy said.
The review was spurred by a 2011 science commission report that acknowledged that unreliable fire science played a role in Cameron Todd Willingham’s conviction in the murder-by-arson deaths of his three young daughters in 1991. The Corsicana man was executed in 2004.
The findings, which did not weigh Willingham’s guilt or innocence, included recommendations for better training of fire investigators and a retroactive review of arson convictions — particularly those from before the early 1990s, when scientific studies began shattering many of the myths under which investigators had operated.
Connealy, a former Cedar Park fire chief who became the state fire marshal three months ago, said he supports the commission’s recommendations, particularly for better, more consistent training of investigators.
“I can’t tell you today that those myths are not alive in certain areas of this state. The only way we can overcome that is with training,” Connealy said. “Fire investigation is so science-centric, but fire investigators have a limited science background.”
The expert panel that will meet in January will lead quarterly training sessions to expose fire investigators to the latest scientific advances, he said.
"Review of Texas arson cases may soon yield results," is the AP filing, based on the Statesman article. It's via the San Francisco Chronicle.
Connealy told the newspaper that his office has begun work on a systematic review of state fire marshal files to identify investigations featuring bad science and that the first step will be prioritizing murder cases. But he noted that his office and its 22 investigators primarily help authorities in rural areas analyze the cause of fires.
Most arson investigations are conducted by city fire departments, and that is why the Innocence Project review of cases is essential to finding possible injustices, he said.
The Innocence Project review began with letters seeking information from more than 1,000 inmates serving prison time for arson. About 175 replies were whittled down to 30 needing more information.
Earlier coverage of the Forensic Science Commission report and the review of arson cases begins at the link; also avaiailable; coverage of Todd Willingham's case. 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 to Dave Mann's enterprise reporting on questionable arson convictions in the Texas Observer.