Willingham Case Finally Back on the Agenda

After a delay of nearly seven months, the disputed case of Cameron Todd Willingham—whose 2004 execution was  based on disproved arson evidence—will be back before the Texas Forensic Science Commission when the panel meets on Friday in Irving.

It’s not clear how the investigation will proceed or if it will proceed at all. Three members of the commission met last week behind closed doors to discuss the Willingham case, as reported by Grits. That three-member panel is expected to present recommendations on the Willingham inquiry at tomorrow’s meeting. (Download the meeting agenda here.)

Willingham was convicted of starting the 1991 house fire that killed his three children in North Texas. Just before the 2004  execution, a nationally known fire expert delivered a report to the governor’s office contending that the forensic evidence against Willingham was outdated and flawed. Gov. Rick Perry ignored the report and allowed Willingham to be executed.

Eight of the nation’s top fire scientists have since examined the case and concluded that the fire was likely accidental and that Texas likely executed an innocent man. (Perry has repeatedly said he still believes Willingham was guilty. Read more details about the case here.)

In late 2008, the Forensic Science Commission began examining the Willingham case to determine if the arson evidence was flawed.

But last September, Perry replaced three members of the commission, including its chairman. The governor appointed Williamson County DA John Bradley to chair the panel. He promptly canceled the next meeting at which the commission was scheduled to hear testimony from a nationally recognized fire expert, hired by the commission, who had concluded  that the arson evidence in the case was shoddy and outdated.

The Willingham inquiry has been on hold ever since.

The timing couldn’t have been better for Perry and his reelection campaign. The Willingham investigation has now been silenced and stalled past the March primary in which Perry defeated his two rivals.

Meanwhile, Bradley has gone about rewriting rules and procedures for the commission, which some critics see as a stalling tactic. And some members of the commission have complained that Bradley is hoarding too much control.

You need not be a cynic to conclude that Bradley was installed as chairman to slow-walk the Willingham investigation.

Rick Casey, in a recent column in the Houston Chronicle, suggested that Bradley would stall the Willingham case until after the general election in November. And it’s had to argue with that.

Hopefully we’ll learn more about the timeline tomorrow. I’ll be at the meeting in Irving and will post several reports throughout the day.

The Innocence Project is also live-steaming the meeting at this site.

One thing to keep in mind: The Willingham case has been politicized by death-penalty and election politics. But the central issue here remains the reliability of forensic arson evidence.

Willingham can’t be helped at this point. Rather, the goal of the Forensic Science Commission inquiry is to learn from the mistakes made in Willingham’s case and apply those lessons to other cases. There are many other people who have likely been wrongly convicted of arson. (Read my coverage of that issue here.)

More than 700 people are serving sentences in Texas prisons on arson convictions. Perhaps a third or even half of them could be innocent.

Those are the people who need help and those are the people most harmed by continued stalling of the Willingham investigation.

Dave Mann is a former editor of the Observer.

Published at 4:41 pm CST
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