Burning Question



Dave Mann

Since the death penalty was reinstated in 1976, no state or governmental body has admitted to executing an innocent person. That doesn’t mean it hasn’t happened, just that no state has ‘fessed up to it. Now Texas could be moving closer to becoming the first state to admit executing an innocent man.

Cameron Todd Willingham was executed in February 2004, convicted of intentionally starting the 1991 house fire that killed his three children. Arson experts who examined the case  say Willingham was convicted with flawed forensic evidence. It appears that Willingham was almost assuredly innocent, as he claimed all along.

The Texas Forensic Science Commission, charged with investigating claims of botched forensics, has been looking into the case. The agency hired Craig Beyler, a nationally known arson expert. In late August, Beyler completed his report on the case and, like other experts, concluded that the fire at Willingham’s house was likely accidental. Beyler writes that the state fire marshal who investigated the blaze had a “limited understanding” of fire science, according to the Chicago Tribune, which first reported Beyler’s conclusion. The marshal’s findings in the case “are nothing more than a collection of personal beliefs that have nothing to do with science-based fire investigation,” Beyler writes.

The science of detecting arson has undergone a revolution the past 15 years. Recent experiments have shown that accidental fires can cause many indicators that investigators once thought meant a fire was started intentionally. These outdated “old wives’ tales,” experts say, convicted Willingham.

More than 800 people are serving arson sentences in Texas prisons. The Observer has been investigating some of these older cases and found inmates who were likely wrongly convicted. (See “Burn Patterns,” April 3, 2009, and  “Victim of Circumstance,” May 29, 2009.)

Sam Bassett, an Austin defense attorney who chairs the Forensic Science Commission, says commissioners will examine Beyler’s report, then solicit input from the state Fire Marshal’s Office and prosecutors. The commission will issue its final report on the case early next year.

Bassett says the report will be comprehensive but will strictly address whether proper forensic procedures were followed in the Willingham case. “We’re not a commission to make declarations of whether someone was innocent or guilty,” he says. “We won’t be making an innocence determination.”

Because it’s an arson case, if the commission concludes the fire was accidental, then by definition no crime was committed. It would also mean Texas killed an innocent man.