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Recommendations, But No Ruling, Issued in Willingham Case

The Texas Forensic Science Commission has released its draft report on the Cameron Todd Willingham case without ruling on the central question before it — whether fire investigators were negligent or committed professional misconduct.

John Bradley, left, is the new chair of the Texas Forensic Science Commission. Cameron Todd Willingham, right, was execute...

The Texas Forensic Science Commission has released its draft report on the Cameron Todd Willingham case without ruling on the central question before it — whether the investigators were negligent or committed professional misconduct when they concluded with certainty that the fire was a deliberate arson. Willingham was convicted of setting the 1991 fire that destroyed his home in Corsicana, killing his three young children. He was executed in 2004. Because the Corsicana Fire Department and the State Fire Marshal's Office have challenged the commission's authority to investigate the matter, the commission has requested a ruling from the state Attorney General, who has until July 30 to decide. 

The draft report instead focuses on a series of recommendations for fire investigators, lawyers and judges. "The Forensic Science Commission realizes there is great public interest [in the Willingham case]...especially to the extent that a resolution will contribute to the ongoing development of fire investigation in Texas," the commission report states. "This report sets forth the FSC's observations regarding the history and progress of fire science, including incendiary indicators and related investigative issues. It  takes a forward-looking approach, suggesting concrete training and educational initiatives."

Even without reaching specific conclusions about the actions of the fire investigators in the Willingham case, the commission's report raises troubling questions about how it and other arson investigations have been conducted, given the advancement in scientific procedures and in the general understanding of fires over the past two decades. For example, the draft report discusses how techniques for eliminating accidental causes of a fire have changed significantly since the Willingham investigation (the report notes that the State Fire Marshal's Office no longer employs an electrical engineer — who is important in determining whether an electrical malfunction has caused a fire — "due to budgetary constraints"). "In sum, investigators must be trained to employ methods for eliminating accidental causes that effectively review all facts and circumstances within the framework of the scientific method."

The report also says the commission "recognizes the value of various incendiary indicators and the manner in which they are identified has changed since the early 1990s." For example, in the early 1990s, many fire investigators including those in the Willingham case relied on a so-called "V-pattern" on a wall to indicate the origin of a fire. "Scientists now know that the 'V-pattern' simply points to where something was burning at some stage of the fire, not necessarily the origin," the report states. The report notes that other incendiary indicators once thought to conclusively demonstrate an arson — pour patterns, flashover indications, "low burn" and "deep burn" patterns, "spalling", "crazed glass" and "burn intensity" — "are subject to numerous variables that require study and evaluation." 

Similarly, the commission report takes a dim view of the language employed by the fire investigators when they testified at Willingham's 1992 trial. One fire investigator testified to the jury that "The fire tells a story. I am just the interpreter." and "The fire does not lie. It tells the truth." The report says, "The commission observes that today's testifying experts must understand when and how to resist counsel's attempts to push testimony beyond measurable facts and scientific principles." The report also says that investigators must take steps to minimize "any  perception of bias for cases in which it is called to the scene by local investigators and subsequently required to testify in court regarding the investigation." 

To view the report click here

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