On Friday, Willingham Inquiry Finally Goes to the Experts

After two years of probing, the Forensic Science Commission will hear from four arson experts.
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The Texas Forensic Science Commission has been studying the validity of the arson evidence in the Cameron Todd Willingham case since 2008.

On Friday—more than two years into its investigation—the commission will finally hear from actual fire investigators.

The commission will devote its entire meeting tomorrow at an office building in downtown Austin to the Willingham case. It will hear invited testimony from four arson experts: Craig Beyler, John DeHaan, Thomas Wood and Ed Salazar.

Willingham was executed in 2004 for allegedly starting the 1991 fire that killed his three daughters. Every piece of physical evidence in the case has since been debunked.

Beyler is the nationally renowned fire scientist who produced a scathing report on the quality of the evidence in the Willingham case for the commission last year.

Beyler was originally scheduled to present his findings in late September 2009. But Gov. Rick Perry axed three members of the commission, including chair Sam Bassett. The brooding John Bradley took over as chairman and promptly canceled Beyler’s planned appearance. Fifteen months later, the commission will finally hear from the Baltimore-based expert.

Also scheduled to speak is John DeHaan—another giant in the field of fire science. DeHaan has written the book on fire investigation, literally. His Kirk’s Fire Investigation is the field’s most widely cited text. DeHaan, who’s based in California, typically testifies for the prosecution and has worked closely with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms over the years.

His testimony in several recent cases has landed DeHaan in some trouble. He offered the key evidence that convicted Curtis Severns—whose case the Observer profiled last year. (DeHaan testified that he believed Severns intentionally set the 2004 fire in his Plano gun shop, but the Observer investigation uncovered compelling evidence that the fire was accidental and that Severns is innocent. He remains in federal prison.) DeHaan also provided the key evidence that nearly sent a Louisiana woman named Amanda Hypes to death row for starting the fire that killed her children. Hypes was innocent, but DeHaan’s testimony helped get her indicted. She spent more than four years in jail awaiting trial. When the case was eventually thrown out due to procedural issues, DeHaan reconsidered his analysis and told prosecutors he was no longer sure of Hypes’ guilt. She was later released.  

But unlike those cases, DeHaan has said from the beginning that the evidence against Willingham was flawed. He was one of four experts who examined the case at the request of the Chicago Tribune back in 2004 and found the evidence of arson lacking.

The commission will also hear from Thomas Wood, an investigator with the Houston Fire Department. And from Ed Salazar, the assistant State Fire Marshal.

It was an investigator with the State Fire Marshal’s office, Manuel Vasquez, who led the original fire investigation at the Willingham house and who compiled the flawed arson evidence. Vasquez has since passed away. Meanwhile, the State Fire Marshal’s office has stood behind his work in the case, even though nine national experts have called the evidence outdated, sloppy and false.

This will be the commission’s first meeting on the Willingham case since its confrontational hearing in September, when the scientists on the commission rebelled against Bradley’s attempts to wind down the investigation. Instead the scientists voted to expand the inquiry and begin hearing invited testimony.

It will also be the first action on the Willingham case since Gov. Rick Perry was reelected. With the governor having secured another four-year term, the Willingham inquiry may be drained of its political implications and focus instead on the wider problem with arson evidence. There are still 750 people in Texas prisons on arson convictions. Quite a few are likely innocent.

The Statesman and Grits have more on the hearing.

I’ll be at tomorrow’s meeting and will post updates in this space and on Twitter.

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.