Flawed Science and New York Lawyers

July 27, 2010

Cameron Todd Willingham was convicted in 1991 and sentenced to die for an arson that killed his three children in Corsicana, Texas. Throughout, he insisted that the fire was an accident, and after his execution, doubts only increased.  A report commissioned by the Innocence Project concluded that the arson investigation in Willingham’s case was seriously flawed, leading many to suspect that the Lone Star State did indeed execute an innocent man.  In 2008 the Texas Forensic Science Commission agreed to look into the case.

On Friday, July 23, the Commission decided that arson investigators had used flawed science, but were not negligent and committed no misconduct.  The investigators had relied, the Commission said, on the best science available at the time.  But a report given to them last year by fire expert Craig Beyler concluded that:

A finding of arson could not be sustained based upon the standard of care expressed by NFPA 921 [the current standard], or the standard of care expressed by fire investigation texts and papers in the period 1980–1992.

In other words, it wasn’t arson by any standard.

The Beyler report was completed over 9 months ago, but Governor Rick Perry stopped the Commission in its tracks by replacing three of its members, including its chairman, two days before a review of the report was to take place. It was Governor Perry who, in 2004, allowed Willingham’s execution to go forward, despite having in hand a report on the “junk science” Texas used to obtain the death sentence.  

Texas state Senator Rodney Ellis suggested to CNN the broader questions the Commission did not ask:

When did the State Fire Marshal start using modern arson science and did the State Fire Marshal commit professional negligence or misconduct when it failed to inform the courts, prosecutors, the Board of Pardons and Parole, and the Governor that flawed arson science had been used to convict hundreds of defendants?

The Forensic Science Commission’s chairman is now a prosecutor named John Bradley, who deftly blamed the whole thing on “New York lawyers”, saying of the Willingham case “I think that’s being used very much as a side issue to politicize, through some New York lawyers, the work of the commission.”

The Texas State Forensics Commission will vote on a final report sometime later this year.  Expectations are low.