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Hearing on Todd Willingham Innocence Case Set by Judge Charlie Baird for Oct 6-7 in Austin

By , September 27, 2010

Sate District Judge Charlie Baird will hold a two-day hearing in Austin October 6-7 in the Todd Willingham innocence case. The hearing starts at 1:30, but you are welcome to join us outside the building at 12:30 with signs supporting Todd Willingham’s innocence.

The location is:
Blackwell-Thurman Criminal Justice Center
509 West 11th, 8th floor
Austin, Texas 78701
Map and directions

From the Austin American-Statesman:

Sate District Judge Charlie Baird announced today that he will hold a two-day hearing in Travis County next week in the case of Cameron Todd Willingham, who was executed in 2004 in the 1991 arson murder of his three young daughters in Corsicana.

Lawyers for Willingham’s relatives on Friday filed a lawsuit asking Baird to hold the hearing to determine whether Willingham was wrongly convicted and whether there is probable cause to charge Texas officials with official oppression.

The suit claims that those officials, who were not named, committed that crime by failing to consider before Willingham’s execution that he was convicted on discredited arson science.

Several arson experts in recent years have rejected the science that the investigators who testified at Willingham’s trial used to determine that the fire that killed his daughters was intentionally set. The Texas Forensic Science Commission has been reviewing the science in the case since 2006.

The hearing has been scheduled for 1:30 p.m. on Oct. 6 and 7.

Baird, right, wrote today in an e-mail to the American-Statesman that he has issued a bench warrant to have Johnny Everett Webb, who testified at Willingham’s 1992 trial, brought to Travis County for the hearing. Webb told a jury during that trial that Willingham, above, confessed to the arson while they were in the same jail.

Baird said that he has appointed a lawyer to represent Webb, who is incarcerated in Navarro County, during the Travis County hearing.

Lawyers for Willingham’s family served their 62-page suit along with the hundreds of copies of exhibits on officials at Gov. Rick Perry’s office, the state fire marshal’s office, the Navarro County district attorney’s office and the office of the state prosecuting attorney, which represents the state in cases at the Court of Criminal Appeals.

Baird wrote in today’s e-mail that he has mailed letters to those parties notifying them of the hearing dates and “invited them to attend if they wanted to present evidence on, for or against the issues raised in the petition.”

Read more about the Willingham family lawyers petition in Travis County here.

Video Coverage of Today’s News about Possible Court of Inquiry in Todd Willingham case

By , September 24, 2010

Video from Fox 4 in Dallas.


Video Preview of Upcoming PBS Frontline Documentary on Todd Willingham Case

By , September 18, 2010

Death by Fire
On air and online October 19, 2010 at 9:00pm (check local listings)

Click here to watch video preview on Frontline site.

Did Texas execute an innocent man? Several controversial death penalty cases are currently under examination in Texas and in other states, but it’s the 2004 execution of Cameron Todd Willingham—convicted for the arson deaths of his three young children—that’s now at the center of the national debate. With unique access to those closest to the case, FRONTLINE examines the Willingham conviction in light of new science that raises doubts about whether the fire at the center of the case was really arson at all. The film meticulously examines the evidence used to convict Willingham, provides an in-depth portrait of those most impacted by the case, and explores the explosive implications of the execution of a possibly innocent man.

11th Annual March to Abolish the Death Penalty
October 30, 2010 at 2 PM
Texas State Capitol
Austin Texas

Texas Forensic Science Commission Rebelled Friday Against its Chair John Bradley

By , September 18, 2010

From the Dallas Morning News:

The Texas Forensic Science Commission rebelled Friday against its head commissioner, refusing to accept his draft report clearing arson investigators of misconduct or negligence in a 1991 fatal fire where flawed science was used to determine the blaze was intentionally set.

RON HEFLIN/Special Contributor
Texas Forensic Science Commission Chairman John Bradley, seated next to counsel Barbara Deane, pushed members to end their investigation by voting that misconduct did not occur in the 1991 arson case of Cameron Todd Willingham.
Cameron Todd Willingham was executed in 2004 for killing his three children by setting that blaze. Texas may have executed an innocent man on Gov. Rick Perry’s watch if the fire was accidental.

“There’s a lot of work to be done still,” Tarrant County Medical Examiner Nizam Peerwani, a member of the commission, said after the meeting. “That’s why the commission didn’t approve the draft.”

The commission instead plans to question arson experts at a future meeting about investigation standards at the time of the fire and will look into whether the investigators knew or should have known the science that led them to assume the fire was caused by arson was flawed.

That puts the commission’s plans right back where they were nearly a year ago, just before Perry suddenly replaced the chairman and two members of the commission.

Perry’s October 2009 dismissals came two days before commissioners were to hear from Baltimore-based Craig Beyler, a nationally recognized fire expert hired by the panel. Beyler has called the fire investigation into the Willingham case slipshod, saying the conclusion that the fire was caused by arson was based on wives’ tales about how fire behaves.
Perry’s replacements were seen by some as a political maneuver intended to change the outcome of the commission’s decision. Perry replaced Austin defense attorney Sam Bassett with conservative Williamson County District Attorney John Bradley as head of the commission.

Perry, however, said the change was a typical use of his power for appointments.

When asked to respond to the commission’s Friday decision to reject the draft report and keep reviewing circumstances around the arson ruling, Perry’s office only pointed out that Willingham was convicted by a jury and that decision was upheld by state and federal courts.

“We expect that the commission will appropriately complete their review of this case,” the statement said.
Had the commission accepted the draft report as Bradley wanted, it would have ended the commission’s inquiry into the Willingham case.

Bassett, the replaced chairman, said in a prepared statement that “science prevailed” when the commission rejected the draft.

“It is heartening to see the scientists on the commission are taking this investigation seriously and requiring that more be done,” he said.

Bassett said that there is “little doubt” some testimony “was based upon flawed science and outdated principles. While some don’t seem to care about this anomaly and how it might affect hundreds of arson convictions, it is a relief that the majority of the commission does care.”

At a meeting set for Nov. 19, the commission is now expected to hear from experts, including Beyler, who concluded that no reasonable investigator could determine that the Corsicana house fire was intentionally set.

Read the rest of the article in the Dallas Morning News:

Todd Willingham Documentary to Air on PBS’s Frontline October 19, 2010

By , September 10, 2010

FRONTLIN<span id=

THOUGHT PROVOKING JOURNALISM
ON AIR AND ONLINE
Oct. 19, 2010
60 minutes
Did Texas execute an innocent man? Several controversial death penalty cases are currently under examination in Texas and in other states, but it’s the 2004 execution of Cameron Todd Willingham — convicted for the arson deaths of his three young children — that’s now at the center of the national debate.
With unique access to those closest to the case, FRONTLINE examines the Willingham conviction in light of new science that raises doubts about whether the fire at the center of the case was really arson at all. The film meticulously examines the evidence used to convict Willingham, provides an in-depth portrait of those most impacted by the case, and explores the explosive implications of the execution of a possibly innocent man.

Producer(s): Jessie Deter and Mike Wiser

The Texas Forensic Science Commission is having a meeting in Dallas on Sept 17 that could well be the final meeting in which they discuss and vote on a final report regarding the Todd Willingham case. The meeting is at the Embassy Suites Hotel Dallas Love Field, 3880 West Northwest Highway, Dallas, Texas, United States 75220 (Map and directions). The meeting starts at 9:30 AM, but is expected to last till late afternoon. The public comment period will be at the end of the meeting. Anyone can make public comments to the Commission.

Members of Texas Moratorium Network plan to attend the meeting. If you can be in Dallas on Sept 17, please plan to join us at the meeting. We have created a Facebook event page here.

You can see video of the last TFSC meeting on the TMN blog.

Fire marshal backs arson finding in Todd Willingham’s execution

By , September 8, 2010

From the Austin American Statesman:

The State Fire Marshal’s Office stands behind its controversial conclusion that Cameron Todd Willingham started the house fire that killed his three children in 1991, contradicting arson experts and scientists who insist the agency relied on bad science in its investigation.

In a pointed letter to the Texas Forensic Science Commission , which is nearing the end of a contentious review of the Willingham arson investigation, Fire Marshal Paul Maldonado defended his agency’s handling of the case that led to Willingham’s execution in 2004.

In July, the commission announced a tentative finding that investigators employed “flawed science” — including now-debunked beliefs that certain fire behaviors point to arson — to conclude that Willingham intentionally set fire to his Corsicana home.

But Maldonado said his agency’s investigation remains valid, even after modern, scientific arson standards are applied.

“We stand by the original investigator’s report and conclusions,” Maldonado said in his Aug. 20 letter to the commission. “Should any subsequent analysis be performed to test other theories and possibilities of the cause and origin of the fire, we will of course re-examine the report again.”

Maldonado’s letter was among 11 received last month after the commission solicited final comments before members prepare to write their report on the Willingham investigation at a specially called meeting Sept. 17 in Dallas. The four-member Willingham subcommittee will have draft language for the rest of the seven-member panel to consider, but much of the discussion on final wording will take place during the open meeting, Chairman John Bradley said Wednesday.

Some letter writers criticized the State Fire Marshal’s Office, which provides arson investigation help to communities across Texas, for declining to acknowledge shortcomings in the Willingham case.

“For the fire marshal’s office to permit (Willingham) to remain imprisoned during all those years leading up to his execution, in spite of knowing for most of those years that the compelling testimony \u2026 provided at trial was solidly wrong, is to partake in unethical scientific behavior of the most extreme kind,” wrote Thomas Bohan, a 35-year forensic physicist from Maine.

The fire marshal’s office compounded its “unethical, negligent behavior” by failing to review similar arson cases that may have been influenced by false or misleading arson indicators, Bohan said.

The letters to the commission highlight an intriguing fight over the scope of its Willingham inquiry, which is being closely watched by both sides of the death penalty debate.

One side, led by the Innocence Project of New York, is pushing for a broad inquiry that could cement the primacy of science-based fire investigations while serving as a launching pad to review convictions that may have been based on now-discredited investigative techniques.

The other side, including Corsicana officials and some fire investigators, seeks a limited review focused on one question: Did investigators follow standard practices when they sifted through the rubble of Willingham’s home in 1991 and 1992? They argue that investigators cannot be faulted if they applied commonly used techniques to assess the fatal fire.

Thus far, the Texas Forensic Science Commission appears to be engaged in a limited review, a course it set after Gov. Rick Perry shook up the panel’s membership a year ago, replacing the former chairman, Austin defense lawyer Sam Bassett, with Bradley, the Williamson County district attorney.

At the commission’s quarterly meeting in July, the Willingham subcommittee announced that it could not find that investigators engaged in misconduct or negligence because they were merely following standard practices for arson investigations of the era.

Based on that finding, many of those who submitted letters to the commission tackled a version of the question: What did investigators know, and when did they know it?

Nobody disputes the notion that fire science has come a long way since 1991, largely because of the National Fire Protection Association’s “NFPA 921: Guide for Fire and Explosion Investigations.” Published in 1992, after the Willingham fire, the guide marked the first concerted effort to bring the scientific method to fire investigations, but it took several years to catch on.

Barry Scheck, co-founder of the Innocence Project, said the fire marshal who investigated the Willingham fire, Manuel Vasquez, should have known that his methods had been deemed unreliable by scientists and leaders of his profession. That information “was readily available” in 1991 even if NFPA 921 had not yet been published, Scheck said in an Aug. 20 letter to the commission.

“Simply because ‘everyone else was doing it’ does not make (his) actions reasonable or not negligent,” Scheck wrote.

Craig Beyler, a fire scientist hired by the commission to review the investigation into the Willingham fire, wrote a 2009 report that was highly critical of Vasquez’s findings and testimony. Beyler’s report, and a follow-up letter sent to the commission Aug. 3, concluded that Vasquez relied on techniques that industry texts had already dismissed as folklore, such as:

• Vasquez testified that wood burns at 800 degrees, meaning an accelerant must have been used to reach the 1,200 degrees necessary to melt an aluminum threshold. But accelerant fires are no hotter than wood fires, and both can reach 2,000 degrees, Beyler said.

• Vasquez testified that “puddle configurations” and burn patterns on the floor could only have been caused by burning liquids. In reality, Beyler said, such patterns are typical in rooms, like those in the Willingham home, that were fully involved in a fire.

• Vasquez determined that a severely cracked porch window indicated a fast, hot fire due to accelerants. It is more likely, Beyler said, that the “crazed glass” resulted from firefighters hitting hot glass with water.

Maldonado, who became state fire marshal in 2004 after rising to assistant chief for the Austin Fire Department, acknowledged that his agency used many of the principles and practices espoused by NFPA 921 when Vasquez — who died in the mid-1990s — investigated the Willingham fire.

Attached to Maldonado’s letter was a point-by-point analysis showing that Vasquez’s arson finding can be supported by NFPA 921, which says melted aluminum, burn patterns, broken glass and other fire phenomena “may also be caused by ignitable liquids.”

The attachment also suggested that commission members take into account that Vasquez’s conclusions were based on a personal review of the fire scene and interviews with Willingham, who offered conflicting accounts of the fire.

Junk science? Another inmate on death row fights to disprove arson – CNN.com

By , August 23, 2010

Junk science? Another inmate on death row fights to disprove arson – CNN.com.

This is the story of two fathers who drank too much and fought with their wives but, their families say, loved their children more than anything in the world.

The two never knew each other. One was in Texas and one in Pennsylvania, but each watched a fire swallow their home with their children inside.

One father, Cameron Todd Willingham of Corsicana, Texas, was convicted on murder charges; authorities said he set the fire that killed his three children in 1991. He was executed by lethal injection in 2004.

Across the country, at a prison outside of Waynesburg,Pennsylvania, where authorities say they hold the “worst of the worst,” is 50-year-old Daniel Dougherty. He, too, was found guilty of deliberately igniting fires in his home that killed his two sons, Danny, 4, and Johnny, 3, in 1985. Police arrested Dougherty 14 years later, when his estranged wife came forward and claimed he confessed. A jury found him guilty on capital murder charges in 2000.

He is awaiting death.

Daniel Dougherty, 50, is being held on death row in Pennsylvania. He is appealing his case.
Daniel Dougherty, 50, is being held on death row in Pennsylvania. He is appealing his case.

Last month, a Texas state board admitted in a preliminary report that flawed arson science was used in Willingham’s investigation.

Read about the Texas state board admitting to using flawed science in the Willingham case

The board’s announcement raises a frightening question: Could the state of Texas have executed an innocent man?

Like Willingham, Dougherty has maintained his innocence from the start. He is trying to prove he isn’t responsible for the flames that engulfed his house and that he is also the victim of flawed arson science.

“We have an innocent man on death row who has been languishing there, and there is absolutely no evidence that a crime occurred,” said his attorney, David Fryman. “We’ve been trying our best to right that wrong.”

Todd Willingham said he was innocent but was executed in February 2004 for the arson murders of his three kids.
Todd Willingham said he was innocent but was executed in February 2004 for the arson murders of his three kids.

Dougherty and his attorneys at Ballard Spahr in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, are waiting on the Pennsylvania Supreme Court to decide whether to hear his petition for post-conviction relief filed in 2006. A crucial element of the appeal is the reports of two arson investigators who have re-examined the evidence and found no conclusive indicators of arson.

With science on his side, Dougherty hopes the court will set him free — before it’s too late. No execution date has been set.

Dougherty’s version of the blaze doesn’t paint him as a murderer but as a failed hero, who tried twice to rescue his sleeping sons with a watering hose and ladder, according to court records. By the time authorities extinguished the fire, his sons had already died from inhaling the toxic fumes.

CNN requested an interview with Dougherty in prison, but his attorneys declined. They did assist CNN in reaching out to Dougherty through letters. Dougherty declined to be interviewed, but wrote back, calling his situation “an injustice that has been done to my loved ones and I.” He added that, “Words cannot describe the depths of anguish and frustration I feel.”

Is arson science to blame?

John Lentini and Angelo Pisani — two of the country’s renowned arson investigators — have conducted thousands of fire scene inspections. Five years ago, they received a call from Dougherty’s attorneys.

Separately, the investigators combed through the reports, testimony, photographs and other evidence from the original fire scene. Contrary to the fire investigator’s original report in 1985, Lentini and Pisani argued there were no signs of arson in Dougherty’s home. Such expert testimony was never presented by Dougherty’s attorney in his 2000 trial.

In the last two decades, advances in arson science have spurred some investigators and lawyers to question past arson convictions. Some attorneys estimate dozens or even hundreds of cases may have been based on faulty arson science. There are no figures on how many arson cases have been successfully refuted.

Dougherty’s original attorney gave a statement in the appeal that he didn’t seek assistance from outside fire investigators. He admitted in Dougherty’s appeal that his team had “presented little from which to make an argument for life.”

The National Fire Protection Association, a fire safety organization, reported there were more than 200,000 intentional fires set to structures in 1980. In 2007, that number dwindled to 55,000. Arson investigators say the steady decline of arson cases can be interpreted different ways: Either there are dramatically fewer cases of intentional fires, or arson science has reduced the number of fires being categorized as intentional. This suggests that some previous cases deemed arson may not have been, they say.

What is a flashover fire?

In their report on the Dougherty case, Lentini and Pisani say they believe Philadelphia Assistant Fire Marshal John Quinn, who led the initial probe, relied on outdated arson investigation techniques.

In his 1985 report, Quinn had determined three fires took place on the first floor of Dougherty’s brick home: one by the sofa, another by a love seat, and a third under the dining room table.

Quinn concluded only a person could have set the fire in three separate places. Quinn declined CNN’s request for an interview.

“There is no evidence to indicate it is arson,” said Lentini, who provided an expert report in Dougherty’s 2006 appeal and also reviewed the Cameron Todd Willingham case in 2004. “The only evidence he [Quinn] has is his three points of origin and those three points of origin are a figment of his imagination.”

Pisani and Lentini argue that the multiple burning spots were likely the result of a “flashover” — a naturally occurring phenomenon during a fire. In a flashover, the enclosed room can get very hot, reaching temperatures as high as 1,100 degrees Fahrenheit. The room eventually combusts, resulting in various burning points.

Flashover fires can be mistaken for arson because they leave the appearance of multiple points of ignition, they said. Lentini added Pennsylvania is “on their way to executing an innocent man.”

Pisani and Lentini also reported the origin of the fire could not be determined because of extensive damage to the room.

The Philadelphia District Attorney’s Office rejected Dougherty’s claims of innocence. They said a flashover fire requires an enclosed space, but that Dougherty’s living room, where the fire occurred, was not an enclosed space since there was a stairwell. They also argued Dougherty managed to emerge from the house without burns or signs of smoke inhalation.

“We are litigating this,” said Joseph McGettigan, first assistant district attorney at the Philadelphia District Attorney’s Office. “The jury’s verdict was a proper one.”

The Dougherty trio: ‘Danny loves kids’

Daniel Dougherty, son of a Philadelphia police officer, was born in 1960 and grew up in a working-class neighborhood with five siblings.

Known as the “outgoing” middle child, he made friends and girlfriends easily. His father’s death from heart problems crushed the 14-year-old Dougherty, who began to drink.

The jury’s verdict was a proper one.
–Joseph McGettigan, first assistant district attorney in Philadelphia

Dougherty never finished the 10th grade. He met his first wife, Kathy Fox, and they had their first son, Danny, in 1980. Two years later, they had their second boy, Johnny.

Danny, 4 years old at the time of the fire, was fearless and curious. He liked riding roller coasters with his father. He constantly peppered family members with questions. Johnny, 3, was quieter.

Dougherty was a functioning alcoholic, his family says. He rarely missed a day of work as a mechanic, his family said. He brought his sons to work so they could spend more time together.

“Danny loves kids, no matter whose kids they are,” said his older brother, Norman Dougherty, 57, of Philadelphia. “He loves my kids, his nieces and nephews. He’d take them to the park. He was good like that.”

Dougherty’s older sister, Karen Dougherty, 53, invited them over for Sunday night dinners at her home. She said her brother relished in his role as a father. He was the first to take his children — and hers — sledding each winter.

“Our father passed away when my brother was young so he always had the kids close to him to make sure nothing would happen to them,” she said.

On August 24, 1985, the night of the fire, Dougherty was supposed to be at an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting. He skipped the meeting and instead went to a bar, where he got into a verbal argument with his girlfriend at the time (she was not the mother of the two boys). He came home, made himself dinner and fell asleep on the sofa in his living room, according to his testimony at trial. He said he awoke to see the curtains in flames. His children were asleep upstairs.

He ran outside to get the neighbor’s garden hose, but the hose was too short. He tried to get water near the window of the house, but he was too late. Flames were already bursting from the house.

The glass exploded, cut his arm and pushed him down.

Next, he grabbed a wooden ladder. But the fire was too powerful. He testified it “blew him down.”

“He was so destroyed,” said Judy Sorling, 54, who still lives several houses away on Carver Street where the fire took place. She told CNN she saw Dougherty standing with the hose, attempting to put the fire out. “He kept yelling for help.”

When firefighters arrived, Dougherty was frantic, screaming at police to save his children. His aggressive and erratic behavior worried police. Authorities shoved his face in the mud and he was taken away, court documents say. Dougherty testified he wanted to die at that moment.

Authorities sifted through the charred remnants of the home and determined the fire had been intentionally set.

Police questioned Dougherty and his family members, but no arrest was made.

Are arson investigations an art or science?

Scenes from popular television shows like CSI often depict detectives relying on forensic science and lab work to draw conclusions. But in the realm of arson investigations, experts say science has played a small role until more recently.

Until 1992, some arson experts say, guidelines for determining arson were largely based on hand-me-down myths practiced by fire investigators with little formal training. In 1992, the National Fire Protection Association released its first arson guidebook based on years of studies and simulations.

Killed in the Willingham fire were stepdaugher Amber, 2, and twins Karmon and Kameron, 1.
Killed in the Willingham fire were stepdaugher Amber, 2, and twins Karmon and Kameron, 1.

The guidelines, known as NFPA 921, were initially met with resistance from fire marshals and officers across the country, who believed arson investigations were an art rather than a science.

“It was gumshoe work, not really analysis and conducting studies,” said Gerald Hurst, an arson investigator with a Ph.D. in chemistry, who examined the arson findings in the Cameron Todd Willingham investigation from 1991. He concluded the arson science used in his case was “junk.”

In 2006, Hurst independently examined Daniel Dougherty’s case. Hurst, too, believed that the multiple burning points were the result of a flashover fire.

It was gumshoe work, not really analysis and conducting studies.
–Gerald Hurst, arson investigator

The fire that killed three people in the Willingham case in Texas happened in 1991, a year before NFPA 921 was released. In February 2004, Willingham was executed. Later, three reviews of evidence by outside experts concluded the fire should not have been ruled arson. The reports stated a flashover was likely responsible for the fire at Willingham’s home.

Read about Texans wondering if they executed an innocent man

“There can no longer be any doubt that an innocent person has been executed,” said Barry Scheck, co-director of the Innocence Project, which uses DNA evidence in efforts to prove the innocence of people they believe were wrongly convicted. “The question now turns to how we can stop it from happening again.”

From prison, a father waits for a second chance

In the years after the fire that killed his two sons, family members said Daniel Dougherty changed. His addiction to alcohol intensified as he tried to cope with his loss. He eventually divorced his wife and remarried, then divorced again. Every one tried to help him using online addiction resources or just being a good friend.

Dougherty received a surprise visit from police in 1999, about 14 years after the fire. His second wife, Adrienne Sussman, had reported to police that he confessed to using gasoline in the fire. Dougherty was arrested.

Sussman’s claim should have been dismissed because no fire reports showed accelerants had been used, Dougherty’s attorneys argued. At the time Sussman went to police, she was engaged in a custody battle with Dougherty over their son Stephen, court documents say.

Prosecutors supported their case with the statements of two jail house informants who said Dougherty confessed to them in his cell. But Dougherty’s attorneys say the jail house informants are unreliable. They point to studies that show in-custody informant testimony is a leading cause of wrongful conviction in capital cases.

Dougherty’s first wife and the mother of the deceased children, Kathy Fox, is now remarried. She said she doesn’t believe he intentionally killed their children. She never testified in the original trial because Dougherty’s attorney didn’t ask her.

“Knowing Daniel and his relationship with his children, I cannot believe he would have burned them to death,” she said in statement presented in Dougherty’s appeal.

So how do lawyers prove a man’s innocence more than two decades after a fire occurred?

The task is almost impossible, said David L. Faigman, a law professor at the University of California, San Francisco. Disproving an arson case is more challenging because the findings aren’t as clear-cut as DNA, he said. He said the petitioners have the burden to prove the arson didn’t occur and that they weren’t involved.

“Courts are already reluctant to open old cases without something like DNA that is really demonstrative proof of someone’s innocence,” Faigman said.

Courts are already reluctant to open old cases without something like DNA that is really demonstrative proof of someone’s innocence.
–David L. Faigman, law professor

Cameron Todd Willingham’s family in Texas is on a quest to prove he is innocent. While the Texas state board’s preliminary findings admitted to flawed science, they also found the investigators did not commit negligence. Still, his family is hoping the board’s final findings, expected to be released in October, will exonerate him.

“It will help us with public opinion,” said David Fryman, Dougherty’s attorney at Ballard Spahr, about the Texas state board’s initial announcements. “I think it can serve as a persuasive influence that this is the real issue. It’s a scientific issue, and we don’t want to have another Willingham.”

Dougherty’s fate rests in the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, which could take years to make a decision. If the Pennsylvania Supreme Court denies his post- conviction relief, his attorneys say they will have to go to federal court.

Meanwhile, Daniel Dougherty marks his time on death row in Pennsylvania. He’s in solitary confinement. At 4 a.m., he is awake and listening to the radio through his headphones. By 5 a.m., he says a prayer and starts his routine of medicines for a number of ailments, including stomach problems. He’s worried about whether his body will hold out long enough to prove his innocence.

His food comes through a locked slot on his cell door. He plays dominoes most days. TV helps him get through. On Mondays, Wednesday and Fridays, he exercises.

He occasionally receives letters from his common-law wife, Kathy Halin, and his family. They are too poor to visit him on the opposite end of the state.

Johnny and Danny, his sons who died in the fire, remain a topic of conversation that evokes “severe hurt,” he said.

“I LOVED (and still do) my sons more than life itself,” he wrote.

He added in his letter that time may heal wounds, but nothing can heal this one.

Junk science? Another inmate on death row fights to disprove arson – CNN.com

By , August 13, 2010

Junk science? Another inmate on death row fights to disprove arson – CNN.com.

(CNN) — This is the story of two fathers who drank too much and fought with their wives but, their families say, loved their children more than anything in the world.

The two never knew each other. One was in Texas and one in Pennsylvania, but each watched a fire swallow their home with their children inside.

One father, Cameron Todd Willingham of Corsicana, Texas, was convicted on murder charges; authorities said he set the fire that killed his three children in 1991. He was executed by lethal injection in 2004.

Across the country, at a prison outside of Waynesburg,Pennsylvania, where authorities say they hold the “worst of the worst,” is 50-year-old Daniel Dougherty. He, too, was found guilty of deliberately igniting fires in his home that killed his two sons, Danny, 4, and Johnny, 3, in 1985. Police arrested Dougherty 14 years later, when his estranged wife came forward and claimed he confessed. A jury found him guilty on capital murder charges in 2000.

He is awaiting death.

Daniel Dougherty, 50, is being held on death row in Pennsylvania. He is appealing his case.
Daniel Dougherty, 50, is being held on death row in Pennsylvania. He is appealing his case.

Last month, a Texas state board admitted in a preliminary report that flawed arson science was used in Willingham’s investigation.

Read about the Texas state board admitting to using flawed science in the Willingham case

The board’s announcement raises a frightening question: Could the state of Texas have executed an innocent man?

Like Willingham, Dougherty has maintained his innocence from the start. He is trying to prove he isn’t responsible for the flames that engulfed his house and that he is also the victim of flawed arson science.

“We have an innocent man on death row who has been languishing there, and there is absolutely no evidence that a crime occurred,” said his attorney, David Fryman. “We’ve been trying our best to right that wrong.”

Todd Willingham said he was innocent but was executed in February 2004 for the arson murders of his three kids.
Todd Willingham said he was innocent but was executed in February 2004 for the arson murders of his three kids.

Dougherty and his attorneys at Ballard Spahr in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, are waiting on the Pennsylvania Supreme Court to decide whether to hear his petition for post-conviction relief filed in 2006. A crucial element of the appeal is the reports of two arson investigators who have re-examined the evidence and found no conclusive indicators of arson.

With science on his side, Dougherty hopes the court will set him free — before it’s too late. No execution date has been set.

Dougherty’s version of the blaze doesn’t paint him as a murderer but as a failed hero, who tried twice to rescue his sleeping sons with a watering hose and ladder, according to court records. By the time authorities extinguished the fire, his sons had already died from inhaling the toxic fumes.

CNN requested an interview with Dougherty in prison, but his attorneys declined. They did assist CNN in reaching out to Dougherty through letters. Dougherty declined to be interviewed, but wrote back, calling his situation “an injustice that has been done to my loved ones and I.” He added that, “Words cannot describe the depths of anguish and frustration I feel.”

Is arson science to blame?

John Lentini and Angelo Pisani — two of the country’s renowned arson investigators — have conducted thousands of fire scene inspections. Five years ago, they received a call from Dougherty’s attorneys.

Separately, the investigators combed through the reports, testimony, photographs and other evidence from the original fire scene. Contrary to the fire investigator’s original report in 1985, Lentini and Pisani argued there were no signs of arson in Dougherty’s home. Such expert testimony was never presented by Dougherty’s attorney in his 2000 trial.

In the last two decades, advances in arson science have spurred some investigators and lawyers to question past arson convictions. Some attorneys estimate dozens or even hundreds of cases may have been based on faulty arson science. There are no figures on how many arson cases have been successfully refuted.

Dougherty’s original attorney gave a statement in the appeal that he didn’t seek assistance from outside fire investigators. He admitted in Dougherty’s appeal that his team had “presented little from which to make an argument for life.”

The National Fire Protection Association, a fire safety organization, reported there were more than 200,000 intentional fires set to structures in 1980. In 2007, that number dwindled to 55,000. Arson investigators say the steady decline of arson cases can be interpreted different ways: Either there are dramatically fewer cases of intentional fires, or arson science has reduced the number of fires being categorized as intentional. This suggests that some previous cases deemed arson may not have been, they say.

What is a flashover fire?

In their report on the Dougherty case, Lentini and Pisani say they believe Philadelphia Assistant Fire Marshal John Quinn, who led the initial probe, relied on outdated arson investigation techniques.

In his 1985 report, Quinn had determined three fires took place on the first floor of Dougherty’s brick home: one by the sofa, another by a love seat, and a third under the dining room table.

Quinn concluded only a person could have set the fire in three separate places. Quinn declined CNN’s request for an interview.

“There is no evidence to indicate it is arson,” said Lentini, who provided an expert report in Dougherty’s 2006 appeal and also reviewed the Cameron Todd Willingham case in 2004. “The only evidence he [Quinn] has is his three points of origin and those three points of origin are a figment of his imagination.”

Pisani and Lentini argue that the multiple burning spots were likely the result of a “flashover” — a naturally occurring phenomenon during a fire. In a flashover, the enclosed room can get very hot, reaching temperatures as high as 1,100 degrees Fahrenheit. The room eventually combusts, resulting in various burning points.

Flashover fires can be mistaken for arson because they leave the appearance of multiple points of ignition, they said. Lentini added Pennsylvania is “on their way to executing an innocent man.”

Pisani and Lentini also reported the origin of the fire could not be determined because of extensive damage to the room.

The Philadelphia District Attorney’s Office rejected Dougherty’s claims of innocence. They said a flashover fire requires an enclosed space, but that Dougherty’s living room, where the fire occurred, was not an enclosed space since there was a stairwell. They also argued Dougherty managed to emerge from the house without burns or signs of smoke inhalation.

“We are litigating this,” said Joseph McGettigan, first assistant district attorney at the Philadelphia District Attorney’s Office. “The jury’s verdict was a proper one.”

The Dougherty trio: ‘Danny loves kids’

Daniel Dougherty, son of a Philadelphia police officer, was born in 1960 and grew up in a working-class neighborhood with five siblings.

Known as the “outgoing” middle child, he made friends and girlfriends easily. His father’s death from heart problems crushed the 14-year-old Dougherty, who began to drink.

The jury’s verdict was a proper one.
–Joseph McGettigan, first assistant district attorney in Philadelphia

Dougherty never finished the 10th grade. He met his first wife, Kathy Fox, and they had their first son, Danny, in 1980. Two years later, they had their second boy, Johnny.

Danny, 4 years old at the time of the fire, was fearless and curious. He liked riding roller coasters with his father. He constantly peppered family members with questions. Johnny, 3, was quieter.

Dougherty was a functioning alcoholic, his family says. He rarely missed a day of work as a mechanic, his family said. He brought his sons to work so they could spend more time together.

“Danny loves kids, no matter whose kids they are,” said his older brother, Norman Dougherty, 57, of Philadelphia. “He loves my kids, his nieces and nephews. He’d take them to the park. He was good like that.”

Dougherty’s older sister, Karen Dougherty, 53, invited them over for Sunday night dinners at her home. She said her brother relished in his role as a father. He was the first to take his children — and hers — sledding each winter.

“Our father passed away when my brother was young so he always had the kids close to him to make sure nothing would happen to them,” she said.

On August 24, 1985, the night of the fire, Dougherty was supposed to be at an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting. He skipped the meeting and instead went to a bar, where he got into a verbal argument with his girlfriend at the time (she was not the mother of the two boys). He came home, made himself dinner and fell asleep on the sofa in his living room, according to his testimony at trial. He said he awoke to see the curtains in flames. His children were asleep upstairs.

He ran outside to get the neighbor’s garden hose, but the hose was too short. He tried to get water near the window of the house, but he was too late. Flames were already bursting from the house.

The glass exploded, cut his arm and pushed him down.

Next, he grabbed a wooden ladder. But the fire was too powerful. He testified it “blew him down.”

“He was so destroyed,” said Judy Sorling, 54, who still lives several houses away on Carver Street where the fire took place. She told CNN she saw Dougherty standing with the hose, attempting to put the fire out. “He kept yelling for help.”

When firefighters arrived, Dougherty was frantic, screaming at police to save his children. His aggressive and erratic behavior worried police. Authorities shoved his face in the mud and he was taken away, court documents say. Dougherty testified he wanted to die at that moment.

Authorities sifted through the charred remnants of the home and determined the fire had been intentionally set.

Police questioned Dougherty and his family members, but no arrest was made.

Are arson investigations an art or science?

Scenes from popular television shows like CSI often depict detectives relying on forensic science and lab work to draw conclusions. But in the realm of arson investigations, experts say science has played a small role until more recently.

Until 1992, some arson experts say, guidelines for determining arson were largely based on hand-me-down myths practiced by fire investigators with little formal training. In 1992, the National Fire Protection Association released its first arson guidebook based on years of studies and simulations.

Killed in the Willingham fire were stepdaugher Amber, 2, and twins Karmon and Kameron, 1.
Killed in the Willingham fire were stepdaugher Amber, 2, and twins Karmon and Kameron, 1.

The guidelines, known as NFPA 921, were initially met with resistance from fire marshals and officers across the country, who believed arson investigations were an art rather than a science.

“It was gumshoe work, not really analysis and conducting studies,” said Gerald Hurst, an arson investigator with a Ph.D. in chemistry, who examined the arson findings in the Cameron Todd Willingham investigation from 1991. He concluded the arson science used in his case was “junk.”

In 2006, Hurst independently examined Daniel Dougherty’s case. Hurst, too, believed that the multiple burning points were the result of a flashover fire.

It was gumshoe work, not really analysis and conducting studies.
–Gerald Hurst, arson investigator

The fire that killed three people in the Willingham case in Texas happened in 1991, a year before NFPA 921 was released. In February 2004, Willingham was executed. Later, three reviews of evidence by outside experts concluded the fire should not have been ruled arson. The reports stated a flashover was likely responsible for the fire at Willingham’s home.

Read about Texans wondering if they executed an innocent man

“There can no longer be any doubt that an innocent person has been executed,” said Barry Scheck, co-director of the Innocence Project, which uses DNA evidence in efforts to prove the innocence of people they believe were wrongly convicted. “The question now turns to how we can stop it from happening again.”

From prison, a father waits for a second chance

In the years after the fire that killed his two sons, family members said Daniel Dougherty changed. His addiction to alcohol intensified as he tried to cope with his loss. He eventually divorced his wife and remarried, then divorced again.

Dougherty received a surprise visit from police in 1999, about 14 years after the fire. His second wife, Adrienne Sussman, had reported to police that he confessed to using gasoline in the fire. Dougherty was arrested.

Sussman’s claim should have been dismissed because no fire reports showed accelerants had been used, Dougherty’s attorneys argued. At the time Sussman went to police, she was engaged in a custody battle with Dougherty over their son Stephen, court documents say.

Prosecutors supported their case with the statements of two jail house informants who said Dougherty confessed to them in his cell. But Dougherty’s attorneys say the jail house informants are unreliable. They point to studies that show in-custody informant testimony is a leading cause of wrongful conviction in capital cases.

Dougherty’s first wife and the mother of the deceased children, Kathy Fox, is now remarried. She said she doesn’t believe he intentionally killed their children. She never testified in the original trial because Dougherty’s attorney didn’t ask her.

“Knowing Daniel and his relationship with his children, I cannot believe he would have burned them to death,” she said in statement presented in Dougherty’s appeal.

So how do lawyers prove a man’s innocence more than two decades after a fire occurred?

The task is almost impossible, said David L. Faigman, a law professor at the University of California, San Francisco. Disproving an arson case is more challenging because the findings aren’t as clear-cut as DNA, he said. He said the petitioners have the burden to prove the arson didn’t occur and that they weren’t involved.

“Courts are already reluctant to open old cases without something like DNA that is really demonstrative proof of someone’s innocence,” Faigman said.

Courts are already reluctant to open old cases without something like DNA that is really demonstrative proof of someone’s innocence.
–David L. Faigman, law professor

Cameron Todd Willingham’s family in Texas is on a quest to prove he is innocent. While the Texas state board’s preliminary findings admitted to flawed science, they also found the investigators did not commit negligence. Still, his family is hoping the board’s final findings, expected to be released in October, will exonerate him.

“It will help us with public opinion,” said David Fryman, Dougherty’s attorney at Ballard Spahr, about the Texas state board’s initial announcements. “I think it can serve as a persuasive influence that this is the real issue. It’s a scientific issue, and we don’t want to have another Willingham.”

Dougherty’s fate rests in the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, which could take years to make a decision. If the Pennsylvania Supreme Court denies his post- conviction relief, his attorneys say they will have to go to federal court.

Meanwhile, Daniel Dougherty marks his time on death row in Pennsylvania. He’s in solitary confinement. At 4 a.m., he is awake and listening to the radio through his headphones. By 5 a.m., he says a prayer and starts his routine of medicines for a number of ailments, including stomach problems. He’s worried about whether his body will hold out long enough to prove his innocence.

His food comes through a locked slot on his cell door. He plays dominoes most days. TV helps him get through. On Mondays, Wednesday and Fridays, he exercises.

He occasionally receives letters from his common-law wife, Kathy Halin, and his family. They are too poor to visit him on the opposite end of the state.

Johnny and Danny, his sons who died in the fire, remain a topic of conversation that evokes “severe hurt,” he said.

“I LOVED (and still do) my sons more than life itself,” he wrote.

He added in his letter that time may heal wounds, but nothing can heal this one.

Texas Forensic Science Commission cites ‘flawed science’ in arson case

By , July 25, 2010

This is best article we have seen covering the July 23, 2010 meeting of the Texas Forensic Science Commission.

From the Houston Chronicle:

Members of the state commission investigating a controversial Corsicana arson case in which three children died — and for which their father was executed — acknowledged on Friday that state and local arson investigators used “flawed science” in determining the blaze had been deliberately set.

But the Texas Forensic Science Commission panel heading the inquiry also found insufficient evidence to prove that state Deputy Fire Marshal Manuel Vasquez and Corsicana Assistant Fire Chief Douglas Fogg were negligent or guilty of misconduct in their arson work.
The investigators, they said, likely used standards accepted in Texas at the time of the fire, which erupted at the home of Cameron Todd Willingham in December 1991. Willingham went to his execution in 2004 proclaiming his innocence in the deaths of his 1-year-old twins and 2-year-old step daughter.

The tentative findings were announced at the commission’s quarterly meeting in Houston.

Commissioners authorized the four-member committee to write a draft report reflecting their findings to be acted on later this summer. The panel, headed by commission Chairman John Bradley, also will solicit more information regarding the state of investigation standards in 1991. It will accept written public comments until Aug. 12.

Friday’s action was the latest chapter in the contentious review of the arson investigators’ work spurred by a complaint filed by the New York-based Innocence Project. The commission is not tasked with determining whether Texas might have executed an innocent man, but whether the arson investigators followed sound scientific principles.

Other reviews critical

At least three expert reviews, including a commission-financed study by Baltimore fire expert Craig Beyler, have been critical of the arson investigations. Burn patterns, multiple points of origin and other phenomenon investigators found at the scene wrongly were interpreted as signs the fire deliberately was set, the experts concluded.

Beyler, who wrote that investigators observed neither the standards of the National Fire Prevention Association, adopted shortly after the blaze, nor standards applicable at the time of the fire, was scheduled to appear before commissioners last September.

Days before the meeting, however, Gov. Rick Perry replaced the commission chairman with Bradley, district attorney in Williamson County. The session at which Beyler was scheduled to speak was canceled, and the fire expert never appeared before the body.

Friday’s action spurred a heated exchange between Bradley and Innocence Project co-founder Barry Scheck, who bolted from his seat to protest. Bradley repeatedly refused to yield the floor.

Family optimistic

Scheck’s organization argues that the state fire marshal’s office should have been aware of updated arson investigation standards and – in any event – should have advised prosecutors and the court of them when they were adopted.
The new standards went into effect in early 1992.

“It’s alarming that they’ve missed the point of our allegations,” Innocence Project policy director Stephen Saloom said. “The state fire marshal’s office had a continuing duty to inform prosecutors, the court, pardons and paroles or the governor of the unreliability of the old evidence.”

While national fire experts may have known in late 1991 that new standards were in the works, investigation committee members said, it’s possible rank-and-file investigators did not.

Willingham’s mother, Eugenia Willingham, and his cousin, Patricia Cox, who were present for Friday’s session, viewed the commission’s action as a positive development.

“We’re cautiously optimistic,” Cox said. “We’re Todd’s voice after death. We’re going to exonerate him. We’re not going away.”
Eugenia Willingham said her son would have been pleased. “His wish was that we clear his name,” she said. “He was innocent and prosecuted for something he didn’t do. … I hope that somewhere or other he saw what happened today.”

Texas Forensic Science Commission Meeting Friday in Houston; Scheck and Todd Willingham’s Cousin Say Panel Must Resist Chair’s Efforts at Sabotage

By , July 22, 2010

The Texas Forensic Science Commission has posted its agenda for its meeting in Houston on July 23, 2010 at the Doubletree Houston Intercontinental Airport, 15747 JFK Boulevard, Houston, Texas 77032 (Map and directions). The meeting starts at 9:30 AM, but is expected to last all day and the public comment period will be at the end of the meeting.

Forensic panel must resist chair’s efforts at sabotage
By BARRY SCHECK and PATRICIA WILLINGHAM COX,
INNOCENCE PROJECT:

This Friday, the Texas Forensic Science Commission (TFSC) is meeting in Houston to discuss, among other things, the status of its inquiry into whether arson investigations across the state have been based for many years on outdated and discredited scientific analysis and that the Texas criminal justice system has failed to recognize this fact. The inquiry arose from two cases — those of Cameron Todd Willingham and Ernest Willis — in which arson had been found and both men were sentenced to death.

In Willis’ case, the system identified its error when Ori White, the prosecutor responsible for retrial after appeal, relying on the expertise of Dr. Gerald Hurst, realized how wrong the original arson analysis was. He promptly moved to dismiss the case, and Willis was ultimately pardoned on the grounds of actual innocence.

Cameron Todd Willingham was not so lucky. Despite asserting his innocence, he was executed in 2004 based on the same arson evidence that prosecutor White — and the arson community nationwide — had realized was scientifically baseless. Before Willingham was executed, Gov. Rick Perry ignored a plea from Hurst, the expert Ori White relied upon, that arson analysis in Willingham’s case was plainly unreliable.

Our interest in these issues is not abstract. One of us, Patricia Cox, is a cousin of Cameron Todd Willingham. The other, Barry Scheck, is co-founder of the Innocence Project, which exonerates the wrongfully convicted through DNA evidence.

In May 2006, we asked the TFSC to undertake this inquiry about arson evidence. We submitted a 48-page report from an independent panel of the nation’s leading arson investigators, which concluded that the scientific analysis used to convict Willingham was not valid. The commissioners then engaged their own national expert to review the matter, who agreed that the forensic analysis used to convict Willingham was wrong — and further, that experts who testified at Willingham’s trial should have known it was wrong at the time. Days before that expert was to present his findings, Perry removed three commissioners, including the chair, Sam Bassett, and appointed Williamson County District Attorney John Bradley as the new chair. Bradley immediately shut down the Willingham hearing.

In an op-ed on these pages last November, Bradley denied charges that his actions were politically motivated and decried those “[who] have made exaggerated claims and drawn premature conclusions about the case.” He then assured Texans that the commission’s investigation “will be completed” using a “disciplined, scientific approach.” Instead, what we have seen so far is not a review of scientific issues but a bureaucratic effort to undermine, if not end, the Willingham inquiry by rewriting the commission’s rules and its jurisdiction.

Last week, after closed meetings that may violate the Texas Open Meetings Act, Bradley sent out an unsigned legal memo instructing commissioners that they have a “relatively narrow investigative jurisdiction.”

Employing “Catch-22” logic, he claimed that commissioners lack the “discretion or power” to investigate evidence that was not from a laboratory accredited by the Department of Public Safety (DPS) — which, as it happens, did not accredit labs before 2003, years after the Willingham fire. By this reasoning, the TFSC cannot review any pre-2003 matter, such as the Houston Police Department crime lab evidence, the scandal that gave rise to its formation.
In 2008, the TFSC carefully considered the jurisdiction question, and, with assent from the Attorney General’s office, determined that the Willingham and other old cases like it are well within its authority.

And rightly so: The Willingham inquiry into the use of unreliable arson analysis is an urgent matter for more than 600 people incarcerated in Texas whose arson convictions may have been based on invalid science. If its investigation is derailed, the commissioners would be turning their backs on these potentially innocent Texans.

Rather than becoming mired in bureaucratic shell games, the commissioners should take their cue from the FBI, which, after learning that a scientific test it used for three decades to do composite bullet lead analysis was unreliable, not only stopped using this flawed science but systematically reviewed its old cases and notified prosecutors across the country when it could no longer stand behind the testimony of its own agent examiners. The same should be done in this instance.

The people of Texas deserve a justice system they can believe in. But if commissioners keep allowing Bradley to rewrite the rules and sabotage the commission’s mission, their ability to redress the forensic problems that have plagued the criminal justice system in Texas will never materialize.

Scheck is co-founder of the Innocence Project; Cox is a cousin of Cameron Todd Willingham.

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