Still No Decision on Negligence in Willingham Case

Presiding Officer of the Texas Forensic Science Commission John Bradley during a commission meeting April 14th, 2011
Presiding Officer of the Texas Forensic Science Commission John Bradley during a commission meeting April 14th, 2011

After releasing a draft report on the case of convicted arsonist Cameron Todd Willingham, state forensic board members refused again today to rule on whether investigators in the case were professionally negligent in deciding the fire that killed Willingham's three daughters was intentionally ignited.

The Texas Forensic Science Commission reviewed the report line by line, but Chairman John Bradley made clear the panel would wait for an opinion from Attorney General Greg Abbott's on its jurisdiction before making a decision on the initial investigators' work. Bradley has asked Abbott's office to opine about whether the commission had jurisdiction over the Willingham case.

Willingham was convicted of setting fire to his Corsciana home and killing his three young daughters in 1991, but he maintained his innocence from the beginning. Since his execution in 2004, scientists have questioned the evidence used to convict him.

In 2006, the state Forensic Science Commission received a request from the Innocence Project, a New York-based clinic that seeks to exonerate wrongfully convicted people, to review the Willingham case for professional negligence or misconduct. The board took up the case in 2009, but days before arson expert Craig Beyler would testify, Gov. Rick Perry replaced his appointees and instated Bradley, the Williamson County district attorney, as chairman.

In January 2010, the commission heard testimony from arson experts — including Craig Beyler, who the commission had hired months before to write a report about the Willingham case, and John DeHaan, who wrote the leading fire investigation textbook — and officials from the State Fire Marshal's Office. The state fire investigators stood by the original investigations, while the outside experts said there was not enough evidence to definitively conclude that the fire was arson. Commission members urged Bradley to move forward and begin drafting the Willingham report in a meeting a couple of weeks later.

 

The report released Thursday gives recommendations to fire investigators, lawyers and judges and explicitly states that the commission will not make a decision on professional negligence or misconduct in the Willingham case while the attorney general's opinion is pending. Bradley said that Abbott has 180 days from the time of the request to decide.

Members struggled to rework the report's section on pour patterns, a key piece of evidence in the original arson case. Commissioner Sarah Kerrigan said it was the "meat of the case," and the report was unspecific.

The Innocence Project's Policy Director Stephen Saloom said it is still worthwhile for the commission to flesh out the report even though it cannot be finalized until the attorney general's opinion is returned. The report, he said, must specifically address errors that might have made in the case.

During public testimony before discussion of the report, Willingham's cousin, Patricia Cox, told commissioners their process has been plagued with needless delays, questionable interruptions and, in her view, scandalous manipulation. Regardless of the commission's findings, she said, Willingham's family will continue to try to clear his name. "We will not give up our effort to ... hold those that are accountable, accountable for his needless death."

Portions of the draft will be rewritten and presented again tomorrow.

 

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