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Questions about Todd Willingham execution won’t go away: Editorial Corpus Christi Caller-Times

Questions about 2004 execution won’t go away

Corpus Christi Caller-Times , Editorial

October 5, 2009

The disturbing question of whether Texas executed an innocent man, Cameron Todd Willingham, for a house fire in Corsicana that killed his three daughters was scheduled to be reviewed by a state board last Friday. Gov. Rick Perry abruptly removed three members of the panel, forcing a cancellation of this review. This came 48 hours before the Texas Forensic Science Commission planned to review the Willingham case.

There is much about this story that is disturbing. In an article headlined “Trial by Fire” by David Grann, a recent issue of The New Yorker examined in detail the investigation, prosecution and trial of Willingham, who was convicted of killing his three young daughters in a 1991 house fire caused, fire investigators said, by arson.

The arson investigators said they found classic signs of arson, including pour patterns and puddle configurations. They concluded that the fire was intentionally set and Willingham had set it. The evidence was analytical and circumstantial, based on forensic science.

As The New Yorker article relates, one of the nation’s leading fire investigators looked at the evidence used to convict Willingham and said the conclusions reached by arson investigators were based on folklore and discredited forensic evidence. In the trial, Willingham’s defense lawyers didn’t really mount a case; they called one witness, a former baby sitter, who said she didn’t think he could have done it, but they didn’t even try to counter the testimony of the arson investigators.

Before Willingham was executed, a known fire expert looked at the case, pro bono, and concluded that the arson investigators’ testimony was based on what he called discredited “junk science.” His report raising questions about Willingham’s guilt went to the clemency board and Gov. Perry, but it reportedly went unread and Willingham was put to death in 2004.

In 2005, the Texas Legislature established a commission to investigate error by forensic experts. Willingham’s was one of the first cases reviewed. In a scathing report, noted fire scientist Craig Beyler concluded that fire investigators had no scientific basis for claiming the Willingham fire was arson and they ignored evidence that contradicted their theory.

Beyler’s report was scheduled to be reviewed on Friday. The governor’s abrupt removal of three board members (whose terms were expired) led to the cancellation of that review. The timing of the governor’s action raises eyebrows, but draw your own conclusions.

The bottom line to this tragic story is that if Texas executed an innocent man, we need to know that. We need to know that to try to prevent it from happening again. Whatever the makeup of the Texas Forensic Science Commission, the disturbing question of whether Texas executed an innocent man will not go away.

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