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Dallas Morning News: Willingham hearing imperfect but important

From the Dallas Morning News Editorial Board, October 1, 2010.

The questions surrounding the Cameron Todd Willingham case have become a constant drumbeat in Texas’ death penalty discussion. The underlying unknown: Did Texas err when it executed Willingham?

The case of a man who was put to death for arson murder of his three daughters has become the state’s most discussed, most studied and most maligned capital murder case. But despite an array of efforts to re-examine the questionable science that sent Willingham to his death, no legal determination has been made on whether he was wrongfully convicted.

That’s what state District Judge Charlie Baird aims to do, starting with a hearing on Wednesday.

This is a bold move by Baird – one that opens up the Travis County judge to plenty of criticism if he proceeds clumsily. But handled with care, this posthumous hearing has the potential to provide important information about the mistakes in this case and to expose weaknesses in Texas’ approach to the death penalty.

To ensure that opening this court of inquiry is a useful exercise, Baird must heed two cautions:

• Don’t rush to judgment. Baird faces no looming deadline and has no reason to speed through the complexities of arson science. He has scheduled a two-day hearing but should allow more time as needed to hear from witnesses and thoroughly examine evidence.

• Listen to both sides. While this seems obvious, it’s not clear whether Navarro County investigators and prosecutors who worked on this case will participate. Their perspective is essential to understanding the original Willingham verdict.

Gov. Rick Perry’s office has been quick to point out that Willingham’s conviction was upheld multiple times, suggesting that all of this is well-trod ground. But in fact, the appeals process is narrowly focused on ensuring that the defendant received a fair trial – not on examining new scientific evidence.

Post-trial accusations that Willingham investigators relied on folklore and junk science to find that the fire was arson weren’t examined on appeal. This week’s hearing will be the first time that a court has taken a hard look at whether relying on outdated arson science prompted the state to make a fatal error.

The Texas Forensic Science Commission also is considering related questions in the Willingham case. But commissioners are focused primarily on questions about professional negligence and standards for forensic investigators; their mission does not include a big-picture look at the entire case.

Baird’s challenge is to ensure that this hearing augments the commission’s work, rather than undermines it.

No court can say with certainty whether Willingham was innocent. But this re-examination of the case could expose flaws in the judicial system and guide future reforms.

This hearing, which comes six years after Willingham’s execution, is an imperfect approach. But perfection became impossible when the state executed Willingham with so many questions left unanswered.

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