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At Willingham Hearing, Science Finally Takes Center Stage

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In an Austin courtroom on Thursday afternoon, six years after he was executed, Cameron Todd Willingham finally received the defense he deserved.

It was technically called a “court of inquiry,” a rarely used legal hearing in which the Willingham family and the Innocence Project asked Austin Judge Charles Baird to determine if Texas wrongly convicted Willingham of starting the 1991 fire that killed his three children.

But the three-hour hearing on Thursday felt very much like a re-trial. At Willingham’s actual trial in 1992, his two court-appointed defense attorneys called just one witness. They didn’t bother to put a forensic expert on the witness stand to counter the prosecution’s arson evidence. And they failed to undermine the testimony of  jail-house snitch Johnny Webb, a man with 13 convictions, who claimed Willingham confessed to starting the fire.

Yesterday, however, some supremely talented attorneys dressed in supremely expensive suits eviscerated the evidence against Willingham. They swiftly discredited Webb by displaying his own hand-written document recanting his testimony against Willingham and claiming prosecutors forced him to lie in court in exchange for a reduced sentence. Then the lawyers put on the witness stand two of the nation’s top fire scientists, who went point-by-point and debunked every piece of arson evidence in the case.

Anyone who might counter this testimony—the governor’s office, the state fire marshal’s office and the Navarro County DA’s office, which convicted Willingham originally—declined Baird’s invitation to take part in the hearing. So the Willingham side had the court to itself. After three hours of unchallenged evidence, former Texas Gov. Mark White, one of four attorneys who spoke, concluded the hearing. “Every shred of evidence points to his innocence,” he told the court. Then he took on the larger issue of the death penalty. “ It is time for a change in the way we carry out sentences that have no reversibility.”

Baird said he would study the case and make a ruling soon. But it’s not clear he’ll get that chance. As the hearing was ending, the state’s Third Court of Appeals issued an order halting the inquiry. (You can read more details about that here.) The Navarro County DA, appeared briefly before Baird and made an unsuccessful motion to recuse the judge. He then asked the appeals court to stop the hearing.

The appeals’ court action added one more bit of drama to a day that included White’s remarks about the death penalty and accusations that Texas executed an innocent man and that Gov. Rick Perry let it happen.

Those topics have dominated the news coverage of the Willingham case for years—and will likely continue to dominate it.

But, on this afternoon, the arson forensics finally came to the forefront.

As I’ve written before in this space, the forensic science is what matters most here. There are roughly 750 people in Texas prisons on arson convictions. Hundreds of them are likely innocent. (For more details on that math, read this story.)

Last year, I chronicled the cases of three men—Curtis Severns, Ed Graf and Alfredo Guardiola—who were likely wrongly convicted of arson. All three remain in prison at this very moment.

Reformers have long hoped the high-profile Willingham case would bring more attention to the issue of flawed arson evidence and perhaps lead to an official inquiry that would exonerate people like Severns, Graf and Guardiola, and many others.

Instead the Willingham case has become saturated and bogged down in the politics of the death penalty and the governor’s race. The details of the fire science are often glossed over. (Even the Forensic Science Commission, which is conducting its own separate inquiry of the Willingham case, hasn’t held a detailed discussion, at least in public, of the flawed arson evidence—though that may yet happen at the commission’s meeting in November.)

But on Thursday a courtroom full of spectators, reporters, cameramen and a judge sat rapt while John Lentini and Gerald Hurst, two nationally renowned fire experts, tore apart the forensic evidence against Willingham and so many others.

Under questioning from Barry Scheck of the Innocence Project, Lentini testified for more than an hour. He delivered a detailed, occasionally sardonic power-point presentation that undermined every one of the 20 supposed indicators of arson that Manuel Vasquez—who handled the case for the fire marshal’s office in 1991 and has since passed away—used to convict Willingham.

Lentini began simply: Fires within enclosed structures behave differently than you think. A fire in your house will do wildly different things than a campfire or a wild fire. Sure, heat rises, but if the fire is inside a structure, the heat will become trapped by the ceiling, forming a layer of gas and smoke at the top of a room. That heat will eventually descend and warm the entire room until that room explodes in flames. This is a stage of fire known as “flashover.”

Lentini showed a portion of this video—in which a smoldering cigarette dropped in the cushions of a recliner engulfs the room in flames in about three minutes.

The key point is this: Flashover can make an accidental fire look very much like an arson—by leaving clues that investigators once thought were dead giveaways of an intentionally set blaze.

For instance: Fire investigators once thought that fire burned only upward. (“All fire goes up,” Vasquez told the Willingham jury back in 1992.) So if the floor was burned, then the fire must have started on the floor. And the burn patterns on the floor and under tables likely showed where an arsonist had poured an accelerant. These were called “pour patterns.”

When Vasquez found several pour patterns at the scene, he theorized Willingham had poured kerosene in the kids’ bedroom, through the house and out the front door. Chemical testing found no traces of an accelerant inside the house. But Vasquez was undeterred. He believed so blindly in the burn pattern evidence, the absence of an accelerant didn’t matter. It must have been arson because that’s what the “pour patterns” showed.  

Lentini scoffed at that. We now know those burn patterns are simply the result of a fire going to flashover. Those burn patterns tell you nothing about how the fire started.  “I could tell a jury that this is a pour pattern,” Lentini said, while displaying a photo of the burned floor from the Willingham house, “and they’ll believe me, but that’s not true.”

Lentini similarly dismantled Vasquez’s other evidence:

Multiple points of origin. This is the “holy grail” of fire investigation, because accidental fires almost never start in more than one place. So, if you can show a fire started at multiple points, then you normally have arson. Vasquez tried this in the Willingham case. That was a serious error, Lentini said, even back in the dark ages of 1991. Multiple points of origin typically means several starting points, unconnected to each other in multiple rooms. If you have one starting point in the kitchen and another starting point in the bedroom upstairs—and there’s no fire trail connecting them—that’s probably arson. But in the Willingham case, the entire house was burned—all the damage was connected. “Multiple origins have to be isolated,” Lentini said. “In the Willingham fire, all the damage was contiguous.” There was no way a competent investigator, even in 1991, could find multiple, independent points of origin at the Willingham scene.

V-patterns. These are v-shaped burn marks that investigators once thought pointed to where a fire started. Because investigators like Vasquez believed wrongly that fire always burns up, a v-pattern near the floor must “point” to where an arsonist started a blaze on the floor. Vasquez testified that he found a v-pattern near the door, leading him to conclude that Willingham started a point of origin there. That conclusion was false. We now know that v-patterns in post-flashover fires occur when the fire sucks in air. V-patterns often are found near ventilation points like windows and doors. In the Willingham case, the v-pattern near the door simply shows where the fire breathed in air to sustain itself. It isn’t an indicator of arson.

Melted aluminum threshold. Vasquez found that the aluminum threshold on the front door to Willingham’s house had melted. It was once thought that melted metal (and warped bed springs and elaborate cracks in windows) was a sign of arson because it showed that a fire burned especially hot. Investigators once thought arson fires burned hotter than accidental fires—because accelerants burned hotter. Numerous experiments have shown that’s not true. Accidental fires and gasoline fires can reach the same temperature. Yet Vasquez testified that only a fire fed by an accelerant could get hot enough to melt the aluminum threshold. He theorized Willingham poured kerosene across the doorway so no one could escape. That is all patently false. The melting point of aluminum is 1,200 degrees, a temperature that any accidental fire could attain, Lentini said. The melted threshold—and the warped bed springs and the cracked windows—provide no clues to how the blaze started. The fact that they’re melted simply shows they’d been in a fire. Nothing more, nothing less.

I’ll stop there. Lentini had many other examples, but you no doubt get the picture. So, how did the Willingham fire start? Dr. Hurst—the Cambridge-educated chemist and Austin-based fire expert who took the stand last—theorized that faulty wiring in the childrens’ bedroom was a possible cause of an accidental fire. But he concedes it’s impossible at this point to know with any certainty how the fire started. But one thing is certai: None of the nine fire scientists who have studied the case since 2004 have found a single piece of credible evidence of arson.

“The bottom line is all the evidence is consistent with an accidental fire.,” Lentini said.

I found the scientific presentation fascinating. We’ll find out Friday if some of those details find their way into the media coverage.

When the hearing ended, though, reporters mobbed Gov. White and peppered him with questions about the death penalty and Perry’s handling of the case.

Meanwhile, Dr. Hurst and his wife sat by themselves a few feet away. Hurst has seen many faulty arson cases over the years, working pro bono with attorneys and journalists to free people wrongly accused or wrongly convicted (he examined the three cases I profiled last year). He’ll tell you that fire investigations are becoming more scientific and that the field is improving. But he still sees a lot of flawed cases. In fact, Hurst told me, while he was sitting in Baird’s courtroom Thursday waiting to testify, an assistant DA approached him and asked Hurst to examine an arson case. The bad cases will keep coming. There are many people who, unlike Willingham, can still be helped.

In that sense, this hearing wasn’t really about Cameron Todd Willingham. It was about the wider problem and the potentially hundreds of people still in prison whose names we don’t yet know.

Dave Mann has been with the Observer since 2003. Before that, he worked as a reporter in Fort Worth and Washington, D.C. He was born and raised in Philadelphia. He thinks border collies are the world’s greatest dogs, and believes in the nourishing powers of pickup basketball.