Forensic Science Panel Recommends Arson Probe

The State Fire Marshal's Office and Innocence Project of Texas will review past arson cases to determine whether faulty science could have led to wrongful convictions after the Texas Forensic Science Commission today approved recommendations to create a review program and improve arson investigations in the state. 

The momentous and long-awaited move was welcomed by the family of Cameron Todd Willingham, who was convicted of killing his three daughters in a 1991 arson fire. He was executed in 2004, and scientists have since discredited the science that was used to cement his arson conviction.

"It doesn't bring my son back, but I know they couldn't do that," said Willingham's stepmother, Eugenia Willingham. "Maybe Todd's name will go down in history as being a part all of this."

The New York-based Innocence Project filed a formal complaint with the Texas Forensic Science Commission in 2006 alleging negligence and misconduct in the course of the arson investigations and testimony at the trials of Willingham and Ernest Ray Willis, who was convicted of arson based on the same type of science and was later exonerated. They wanted the commission to find that the State Fire Marshal's Office had erred in its investigation and then require the agency to review its other arson cases where similar practices were used to determine whether mistakes were made that resulted in wrongful convictions.

The matter has been a source of heated controversy at the commission through three different chairman, inlcudingWilliamson County District Attorney John Bradley, who strenuously objected to the commission's involvement in the case. He publicly sparred with the Innocence Project, which contended he was delaying the case for political purposes. Bradley argued that the commission did not have jurisdiction to investigate the Willingham case, and he asked Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott to issue a ruling on the panel's authority.

Gov. Rick Perry appointed the current chairman, Dr. Nizam Peerwani, who is also the Tarrant County medical examiner, after the state Senate this year declined to confirm Bradley's nomination to continue leading the panel.

The new program and recommendations issued today follow Abbott's July ruling that severely restricted the commission's jurisdiction. He determined it could not investigate evidence gathered or tested before the commission's 2005 creation. 

"I think the recommendations are proof that the Forensic Science Commission has worked very hard to do their job," said Jeff Blackburn, founder and chief counsel of the Innocence Project of Texas. "They have been legally confined by the Attorney General opinion, and I think they're doing the very best they can within the confines of that opinion."

Prior to today's meeting, State Fire Marshal Paul Maldonado and members of the Innocence Project of Texas and the Texas Forensic Science Commission convened to discuss the recommendations and how to implement them.

In an email, the Innoncence Project congratulated the commission on the program, saying members have "reminded the nation that forensic practices must be based on the most current science and that there is an ethical duty to correct when it is clear that the state and its forensic practitioners have unjustly convicted someone."

Now, a new stage of work begins that will require time and cooperation to conduct an exhaustive review of previous arson cases. But Blackburn said with the Fire Marshal's involvement, all the pieces are falling into place. 

The commission's recommendations include the creation of a questionnaire for inmates convicted of arson to see if their cases are worth reviewing. The panel also recommended a review of death certificates in cases where the murder charge is listed as arson.

The recommendations also include new certification criteria for expert witnesses, and additional rules and regulations aimed at preventing the use of outdated science and improving the quality of testimony and analysis.

Since his 2004 execution, Willingham's family has continued a fight to prove his innocence. Willingham's cousin, Patricia Ann Willingham-Cox, thanked the commission for its work. 

"Have we gotten justice for Todd in the state of Texas? No, not yet, but we will," Cox said. "Has Todd's death effected needed change? Yes."

 

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