The Willingham Probe Takes a Remarkable Turn

by Published on

For nearly a year, John Bradley has lorded over the Texas Forensic Science Commission.

Since Gov. Rick Perry named him chair last September, Bradley has seized control of the commission and its most high-profile case: the probe into whether Cameron Todd Willingham was convicted—and executed in 2004—based on flawed arson evidence.

But on Friday, all hell broke loose.

When seven commissioners met at a hotel near Dallas’ Love Field, the ostensible goal was to finalize their report on the Willingham case. But from the start, the forensic scientists on the panel fought Bradley at every step. By the end, the tenor of the meeting had changed entirely. What was supposed to have been the end of the Willingham probe now seems just the beginning.

One reform advocate termed the days events “the revenge of the scientists.” Another advocate, Stephen Saloom of the Innocence Project, said the meeting “gives me great hope about where this investigation will lead.”

Indeed, commissioners today talked openly of digging into the systemic problem with arson cases. That’s a subject I’ve been writing about for two years, and it was remarkable to hear commissioners move beyond Willingham to look at the wider problem. Several commissioners even suggested a wide-ranging re-examination of arson cases in Texas from the past 20 years.

That was a stunning development given how the day started.

The meeting began with Bradley, the gruff Williamson County prosecutor, hauling the commission into an executive session for an hour and 15 minutes. Lord only knows what was said. But when the commission reemerged, Bradley had a clear agenda: Go over the draft report on the Willingham case that he’d mostly written himself (several commission members said they saw the report for the first time only when it was made public), finalize a conclusion that the fire investigators on the case weren’t professionally negligent; and wrap up the whole deal by this afternoon. Bradley even announced that he hoped to release a final report on the Willingham investigation by the end of the day.

The other commissioners were having none of it. They had serious problems with the draft report. Bradley’s position was straight-forward: The evidence against Willingham may seem flawed by today’s standards, but back in 1991, the fire investigators performed just fine.

But Dr. Sarah Kerrigan—a forensic expert at Sam Houston State University and one of Bradley’s frequent antagonists on the commission—noted that the investigation didn’t meet scientific standards even in 1991. Other commissioners soon joined in with their own objections to Bradley’s narrow conclusions.

Dr. Nizam Peerwani, the Fort Worth medical examiner, said the draft report had too little detail about the flawed arson evidence presented against Willingham. “We have to mention that [disproved forensic evidence] are not indicators of arson.”

Kerrigan suggested that the commission postpone its final report and invite a panel of fire experts to appear at another meeting to answer direct questions about what the standards were exactly in 1991, whether the investigators met that standard and just how flawed the evidence against Willingham was.

Bradley wasn’t pleased with that idea. He wanted to end the inquiry on Friday, not expand it. He pointed out that the commission had already sent written questions to some experts and hadn’t heard back from all of them.

But Garry Adams, from Texas A&M, said he too wanted to question the experts in person. Three other commissioners quickly agreed. The revolt against Bradley was spreading.

“We can waste another meeting getting those non-answers,” Bradley said. But he’d already lost, and the commission voted to schedule another meeting for Nov. 19th to hear from experts.

When the commission returned from lunch, Bradley was chastened. He no longer was dictating the meeting, and was oddly quiet and deferential. When there was a lull in discussion, he would ask, “What do the commissioners want to do next?”

What came next was a discussion of the Fire Marshal’s office. Two commissioners said they were “shocked” that the Fire Marshal’s office, in a recent memo to commissioners, was standing staunchly behind its investigation from 1991.

Commissioners wondered how could the Fire Marshal’s office express such confidence in its work on the Willingham case when nearly all the evidence turned out to be bogus? And why didn’t the Fire Marshal’s office notify anyone before Willingham’s execution that the case might be flawed?

These were issues Bradley wanted no part of, but the tide was against him.

“Somebody needs to go back and look at all the other cases [the Fire Marshal’s office] investigated,” Peerwani said. He added that he’s requested a 20-year re-examination of convictions in his county and said other counties should do the same.

Adams agreed: “If there’s an error, it needs to be corrected, and we know there’s an error.”

Kerrigan went further, “There seems to be a great deal more concern that we have more of a systemic problem.”

The problem with arson cases is systemic. I chronicled some of those problems in a series of articles last year. We desperately need a wide-ranging investigation into older arson cases in this state to find the potentially hundreds of wrongful convictions.

On Friday, for the first time, it seemed the state of Texas might address that injustice.


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.