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Willingham’s Not the Only One

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Could there be hundreds of innocent people serving time in Texas prisons on faulty arson convictions?

I raise that question in a feature story — headlined “Fire and Innocence” — that we posted online yesterday afternoon. This is the fourth story in my Burn Patterns series on flawed arson convictions in Texas. (You can read the previous stories here, here and here.)

The widespread problems with forensic arson evidence has become a national story lately thanks largely to the Cameron Todd Willingham case. (Willingham, executed in 2004, was likely innocent.  If you’re not familiar with the case, go here or here.)

In my series, I’ve tried to show that while Willingham’s case — and, to a slightly lesser extent, the case of Ernest Ray Willis — are the most well-known examples of flawed arson forensics wrongly convicting Texas defendants, they’re far from alone.

Nearly 800 people are serving sentences in Texas prisons on arson convictions. How many might be innocent? Hard to know for sure. But there’s evidence that points to a number in the hundreds.

Gerald Hurst — the Austin-based fire and explosives expert who was the first fire scientist to raise questions about Willingham’s conviction — estimates that 30 to 50 percent of all arson cases could be flawed. In Texas, that would total 250 to 400 people.

I know what you’re thinking: Could it really be that high? I was skeptical at first too.

But then I looked at numbers from Texas’ State Fire Marshal’s Office, and they sent a chill up my spine.

In the past decade — as the new truth about arson forensics penetrated the fire-investigation community — the number of arsons in Texas has fallen more than 60 percent.

I’ll say that again: Arsons fell more than 60 percent in just 10 years.

In 1997, investigators found nearly 16,000 arsons in Texas. In 2007, that number was just under 6,000. Meanwhile, the overall number of fires remained fairly constant — just a lot fewer of them were ruled arson.

(You can find the Fire Marshal’s numbers here.)

What explains that? Are there just fewer arsonists running around? Seems unlikely.

The more probable explanation is that, as the new understanding of fire science becomes more well known, investigators are getting it right more often. In other words, investigators are now correctly interpreting accidental fires that would have been ruled arson in years past.

Given those numbers, it’s reasonable to conclude that 30 to 50 percent of all arson cases could be flawed.

That could mean hundreds of wrongly convicted prisoners.

Yet, so far, the only people looking at older arson convictions are nonprofits like the Innocence Project and a handful of reporters — none of whom really have the resources for a comprehensive review.

This issue desperately needs the attention of state lawmakers. They need to move beyond the Willingham controversy and look at the bigger problem.

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.