Paul Maldonado’s one-sentence, hand-written letter of resignation, dated Dec. 12, comes just as the fire marshal’s office, in conjunction with the Innocence Project of Texas, embarks on an unprecedented review of arson cases in the wake of the Texas Forensic Science Commission’s protracted examination of the Willingham case.
Asked why Maldonado resigned, spokesman Jerry Hagins said the agency does not discuss personnel issues. “The personnel change won't affect the work of the State Fire Marshal's office,” Hagins wrote in an email.
In October, after discussions with the Texas Forensic Science Commission and the Innocence Project, Maldonado had agreed to cooperate with a review of old arson cases to determine whether faulty science might have led to wrongful convictions. At the commission’s meeting on Friday, an update is expected on the progress of the review.
The agreement came after more than two years of heated controversy at the science commission over the Willingham case. Willingham was executed in 2004. He was convicted of arson in the 1991 fire that killed his three daughters. Several scientists who reviewed the evidence shortly before and after Willingham’s execution had concluded the deadly blaze was not intentionally set. And the New York-based Innocence Project asked the Forensic Science Commission to review the scientific methods used by the State Fire Marshal’s Office that led to Willingham’s conviction.
The commission in 2008 agreed to investigate the case and became embroiled in a political battle over Willingham’s innocence or guilt and the fairness of the state’s implementation of the death penalty. Finally, in a report released last year, the commission agreed that the arson science used to secure Willingham’s conviction was faulty. And it recommended a review of other arson cases that the State Fire Marshal’s Office investigated.
Despite the many scientific reports questioning the State Fire Marshal Office’s work, Maldonado, who became fire marshal in December 2004, defended the Willingham investigation.
Lynn Robitaille, general counsel at the commission, said Maldonado’s departure would not affect the arson case review, which is already under way.
“I think it's all systems go,” said Jeff Blackburn, general counsel for the Innocence Project of Texas, which is spearheading the review.
He said his group has already sent questionnaires to more than 1,000 inmates in Texas prisons on arson-related charges. Once those are returned, he said, Innocence Project staff will begin sifting through the cases to determine which ones warrant a deeper vetting.
“We’re way past the talking stage, and we’re in the doing stage,” Blackburn said.
He expects only a handful of those arson cases will present serious questions about whether faulty science was used to obtain the conviction.
While the State Fire Marshal’s Office will have to sort out its personnel issues, Blackburn said that for now the leader’s departure wouldn’t affect the continuing work.
“My experience with Mr. Maldonado was he was a very open-minded guy and genuinely committed to improving forensic science and arson investigation in this state,” Blackburn said. “I hope the next fire marshal will be as open-minded as Paul was.”
Editor's Note: The original of this story incorrectly stated Lynn Robitaille's title at the Forensic Science Commission. She is the commission's general counsel.