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TribBlog: Case "Undetermined"

The Texas Forensic Science Commission heard testimony from four fire experts today to gather evidence about the reliability of the arson investigation that led to the 2004 execution of Cameron Todd Willingham. Half said investigators got it right, and half said they were wrong.

John Bradley, left, is the new chair of the Texas Forensic Science Commission. Cameron Todd Willingham, right, was executed for setting a house fire that killed his three daughters.

The state forensic science board listened to hours of testimony today about the investigative methods used to sentence Cameron Todd Willingham to death for the 1991 arson that killed his three daughters in their Corsicana home. The experts were split, and the commission members — who have been reviewing the Willingham case for nearly two years — said they still won't make a decision on the case until at least their next meeting, on Jan. 21.

Today marked the first time the Texas Forensic Science Commission heard testimony from fire experts. The commission, under former chairman Samuel Bassett, was scheduled to hear arson expert Craig Beyler’s perspective on the Willingham investigation nearly 15 months ago, but Gov. Rick Perry appointed new members, including current chairman John Bradley, who canceled Beyler’s testimony.

The Innocence Project’s Policy Director Stephen Saloom said the commission made good progress by “finally” hearing fire experts about the Willingham case. “I have great confidence they’re going to come back and make the right decision,” he said. “But we’ll have to see how it goes.”

Willingham was convicted of setting fire to his home while his three daughters were still inside, but maintained his innocence from the start. Since Willingham’s execution in 2004, though, some scientists have raised serious questions about the evidence used to convict him. “The profession was bootstrapping itself at the time,” Beyler said at today's hearing. “It understood it was behind.”

Beyler, who the commission hired to write a report on the Willingham investigation, said original fire investigators failed to conclusively determine that arson caused the fire. Beyler accused the original investigators of ignoring eyewitnesses, whose testimony contradicted the arson determination. Both Beyler and arson expert John DeHaan, who wrote the leading fire investigation textbook, agreed there were other possible causes that the investigators could not eliminate.

At today's meeting, Bradley challenged the fire experts, bringing up mistakes they had made in previous cases. “I’m not quibbling with your opinion,” Bradley said. “I want to make it clear that it is one that is undetermined at a 20-year hindsight. These [investigators] did the best they could with the information they had at the time.”

An official from the state fire marshal’s office and a longtime Houston arson investigator stood by the original conclusions, testifying today that the arson finding was justified based on what the investigator saw and his training at the time.

"One of the things that is so prominent about fire investigations is that a lot of the evidence is circumstantial,” said Thomas Wood, a 32-year veteran investigator in the Houston Fire Department. “The totality of the evidence is what the majority of our calls are made on, but we’re never going to know what was in [the investigator's] mind."

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