It also spells political trouble for Governor Perry as he faces an election race this November. Many of the arson panel's conclusions had been reached even before Willingham's execution, by a Cambridge-educated arson expert called Gerald Hurst, who passed on his findings to the Governor's office. As he told an investigative team from the Chicago Tribune at the time: "There's nothing to suggest to any reasonable arson investigator that this was an arson fire. It was just a fire." It does not appear, however, that Dr Hurst's findings were taken seriously by either the Governor's office or the state Board of Pardons and Paroles.
Barry Scheck, one of the two principles of the Innocence Project, who remains perhaps most famous for his role in defending O J Simpson, said he had established through open records requests that the Hurst report had indeed been properly filed before the execution.
"Neither office has any record of anyone acknowledging it, taking note of its significance, responding to it or calling any attention to it within the government," he said. "The only reasonable conclusion is that the Governor's office and the Board of Pardons and Paroles ignored scientific evidence and went through with the execution."
The prosecution, meanwhile, presented last-minute, second-hand evidence that Willingham had confessed to his estranged wife, something she later said was untrue.
Perhaps most poignant for Willingham's surviving relatives is that, at the time of execution, a similar case was going through the Texas legal system, that of Ernest Willis, who had been sentenced to death for his alleged role in setting a fatal fire in west Texas in 1987. Dr Hurst examined his case, too, found the forensic evidence similarly flawed and said he saw no evidence of arson. Willis was able to have his case reopened and dismissed. He walked out of death row a free man seven months after Willingham's execution.
Texas Moratorium Network (TMN) is a non-profit organization with the primary goal of mobilizing statewide support for a moratorium on executions in Texas. Significant death penalty reform in Texas, including a moratorium on executions, is a viable goal if the public is educated on the death penalty system and is encouraged to contact their elected representatives to urge passage of moratorium legislation.
We hope that you will join us in this fight for fairness and social justice.Please join our email list and become one of the more than 20,000 people receiving information through our network.