"Duty to correct bad arson cases," is the Dallas Morning News editorial.
Breakthroughs take time in criminal justice reform, and they get messy, but they are no less impressive when they happen.
Just this week in Houston, the state fire marshal’s office sat down with outside experts to pore over a short list of old arson cases suspected of using junk science to put someone behind bars. One of those suspect cases, from the Central Texas town of Hewitt, is on a separate review track in McLennan County. The district attorney there has cited “serious and complex issues” involving arson forensics in the murder conviction of Ed Graf, who will get a hearing Friday on a writ to reopen his 26-year-old case.
All this traces back to the noisy early days of the Texas Forensic Science Commission and its first case, the arson-murder conviction of Cameron Todd Willingham, executed in 2004. Critics were prone to calling reformers out of bounds, grandstanders who were out to undermine Texans’ support of the death penalty.
Those critics need to take a look today. The fight was a righteous one and has yielded a kind of systematic re-examination of the science in arson convictions that is unprecedented in the nation.
As a fledgling agency, the Forensic Science Commission took heat for stretching its authority in 2008 and accepting the Willingham case for review. This newspaper is glad it did, even though the law creating the commission didn’t expressly list arson as a forensic science under its purview.
Today's Los Angeles Times reports, "Texas judge to examine old arson case amid statewide review," by Molly Hennessy-Fiske. Here's an extended excerpt:
A Texas judge is expected to consider Friday whether to grant a new trial for a man serving a life sentence for murdering his two stepsons by arson, or even to declare him innocent.
Ed Graf, 60, was convicted in 1988 of locking his 8- and 9-year-old stepsons in a backyard storage shed in Hewitt, Texas, just outside Waco, and setting the shed afire.
Graf’s is among a handful of arson cases under review by the Lubbock-based Innocence Project of Texas and an expert state fire panel, an unprecedented investigation of closed cases recommended by the state’s Forensic Science Commission. The expert panel includes the leader of the science commission.
Innocence Project officials hope the review will help overturn wrongful convictions that relied on so-called “junk science,” discredited approaches of determining whether fires were intentionally set.
Earlier this week, the officials brought their findings to the fire panel assembled by Texas Fire Marshal Chris Connealy in Houston.
The panel convened after a report last year by the Forensic Science Commission found that unreliable science helped lead to Cameron Todd Willingham's conviction for murder by arson in 1992. Willingham, 24, had been convicted in the deaths of his three children in a 1991 fire at their home in Corsicana, about 55 miles south of Dallas, and was executed in 2004.
Last year’s science commission report did not draw conclusions about Willingham's guilt, instead recommending the arson review currently underway.
Innocence Project staff found about 30 problematic arson cases they want to investigate, and brought them to the six-member state fire panel when it met for the first time Tuesday.
One case involved weak evidence about how a house fire started. Another concerned questionable arson evidence from a fire in the 1980s in Pasadena, about 15 miles east of Houston. The person convicted in the latter case is serving a 75-year sentence.
Connealy, a former fire chief working in the field since 1978, said the expert panel reviewed five questionable cases, including Graf’s. He declined to identify the other cases, since he said the panel had yet to notify the officials who originally handled them.
"Experts to testify in Ed Graf arson murder case from 1980s," is a December 2012 report from the Waco Tribune with background information on the Graf case. It's written by Cindy V. Culp.
Two of the nation’s leading fire science experts are scheduled to come to Waco next month for a hearing that will help decide the fate of a Hewitt man who claims he was wrongfully convicted of arson murder.
But the hearing could have implications far beyond Ed Graf’s case, said Jeff Blackburn, chief counsel for the Innocence Project of Texas.He said the state’s criminal justice system is starting to come to terms with the idea that junk science contributed to a number of wrongful convictions in recent decades.
But the state’s highest criminal court has not yet developed a uniform and fair way of handling such injustice, he said.
The hearing in Graf’s case, scheduled for Jan. 11, will be the first post-conviction hearing in Texas where attorneys will present evidence to show faulty fire science was used to secure an arson conviction, Blackburn said.
If he and Waco attorney Walter M. Reaves Jr. are able to provide the level of proof they think they can, Graf’s case could well be the one that finally causes the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals to set a precedent that offers appropriate relief to people ensnared by bad science, he said.
“The law in this area is complicated and generally terrible, but the facts of Ed Graf’s case are not,” Blackburn said. “It shows the stark possibilities of the way science can be misused and abused in a courtroom. The guy shouldn’t have been convicted and deserves a new trial.”
Earlier coverage of the systematic review of Texas arson cases 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, including his 2009 reporting on Ed Graf's case.