Did Texas Execute an Innocent Man?



Dave Mann

Since the death penalty was reinstated in 1976, no state or governmental body has ever admitted to executing an innocent person. That doesn’t mean it hasn’t happened, of course, just that no state has ever fessed up it.

But the first state to do it may just be Texas.

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

While Willingham is perhaps the most famous wrongly convicted arsonist in Texas, he’s certainly not the only one.

At the Observer, I’ve been digging into some of these older arson cases — part of an investigative series. So far I’ve found two cases in which accused arsonists were likely wrongly convicted. (See “Burn Patterns,” April 3, 2009, and  “Victim of Circumstance,” May 29, 2009.) The third installment in the series will be published in September.

Meanwhile, the Texas Forensic Science Commission, charged with investigating claims of botched forensics, has been looking into the Willingham case. The agency hired Craig Beyler, a nationally known arson expert. On Monday, the Chicago Tribune first broke the details of Beyler’s report. Like other experts, he concluded that the fire at Willingham’s house was likely accidental. Beyler writes that the fire 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 of the indicators that investigators once thought meant a fire was started intentionally. It was these outdated “old wives tales,” experts say, that convicted Willingham.

More than 800 people are serving arson sentences in Texas prisons.

Grits for Breakfast has been all over the Willingham case and the arson issue for years.

Sam Bassett, an Austin defense attorney who chairs the Forensic Science Commission, told me that 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.

It remains unclear how far the commission will go in its final report. As Bassett pointed out, this is the commission’s first investigation (it was created in 2005), and no one’s quite sure how this will work.

Bassett said the report 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 said. “We won’t be making an innocence determination.”Still, because it’s an arson case, if the commission concludes the fire was accidental, then that means, by definition, no crime was committed. And it would also mean Texas put to death an innocent man.