We received the below email response to an inquiry to the Texas Forensic Science Commission on the status of the investigation into the cases of Todd Willingham and Ernest Willis. Willingham was executed in 2004 in Texas, but many fire experts have concluded that the arson fire that he was convicted of was actually an accidentlay fire, which would mean Texas executed an innocent person. Ernest Willis was exonerated and released from Texas death row in 2004 after authorities cleared him of setting an arson fire in another case.
The deadline for Dr. Beyler to complete his investigation is June 1st. At that time, the Commission may provide a brief update. However, the Commission intends to develop their own report based on Dr. Beyler’s recommendations/conclusions. The timeline for the Commission to release such report has not been decided.
Leigh M. Tomlin
Texas Forensic Science Commission
In America, while suspects are presumed innocent until proven guilty, frequently fires are not presumed accidental until proved to be arson. All fires necessitate an extra investigative step — an independent, science-based determination of arson to first ascertain that a crime even took place.
Civil cases often bifurcate issues of liability and damages, making the jury’s first task to determine if a fire was intentionally set. Criminal arson cases seem to cry out for the same approach, given that a determination of arson alone can never definitively tie a person to a crime scene or unequivocally reveal a perpetrator’s identity.
Yet any serious proposal for a similar system would be met, Lentini surmised, with “universal screaming and gnashing of teeth,” and allegations that criminals were being allowed to slip through the net.
Gnashing teeth notwithstanding, the need for reform is critical. Lentini cites figures of 75,000 suspicious fires every year — “That’s 75,000 chances to get it wrong,” as he told CNN’s Anderson Cooper.
According to a 2002 Bureau of Justice Statistics report, in just half the states in the U.S., more than 5,000 people are in prison for arson crimes. Arson is the only crime for which someone can receive the death penalty based on the testimony of an expert witness whose education ended with high school. And although no one spoken to for this article would hazard a specific estimate of how many innocents are imprisoned on arson convictions, answers ranged from “dozens to hundreds” to “tons.”
If ever a case embodied the disastrous consequences of the obsolete beliefs about fires, it is Cameron Todd Willingham’s. The Texan was convicted in 1991 of the arson murders of his three children, all under age 3. In 2004, Willingham’s appellate lawyer — Walter Reaves — commissioned a review by chemist Gerald Hurst, a key player in the fire investigation wars. Hurst’s powerful report debunked all 20 so-called “arson indicators” used to convict Willingham. He was executed anyway.
While it’s too late for Willingham, the New York Innocence Project was galvanized to create an Arson Review Committee corralling five top experts, including Lentini and veteran investigator Douglas Carpenter, to compare Willingham’s case to that of Ernest Willis, a fellow Texan convicted on similar evidence of setting a fire that killed two sleeping women in a house he was staying in. After 17 years in prison and only months after Willingham’s execution, Willis was exonerated and released.
The Arson Review Committee’s 2006 report echoed Hurst in discrediting all the “arson indicators” found by deputy state fire marshal Manuel Vasquez at the Willingham fire. Patterns Vasquez attributed to ignitable liquid or accelerant, it concluded, could not be used to distinguish arson from an accidental fire.
The report is now under review by the Texas Forensic Science Commission, whose chair, Sam Bassett, told Miller-McCune.com that it has voted to hire an expert to lead them in their investigation. The commission is charged by statute with conducting investigations. If they concur with all the other experts, they could make recommendations for further review or even for system reform.
“I believe it would be within our purview to comment upon any broader issues such as the possibility of misconduct or professional negligence in other cases,” Bassett wrote in an e-mail. “However, that is dependent first upon our finding that misconduct or professional negligence occurred in the Willis/Willingham case. Until we receive feedback from our expert, the Commission will remain neutral on this issue and there will be no further comment until such time as we issue our report.”
The possibility of misconduct and professional negligence?
“Boy, there’s a political football for you,” Hurst said skeptically, imagining the ramifications of an official admission that an innocent man was executed.
Carpenter is more optimistic. “I’d certainly hope something tangible comes from the process,” he said. “I think they’re taking it seriously.”
Yet Reaves, the attorney, worries that the commission’s very review could do more harm than good: “I just have a hard time envisioning a state sponsored commission coming down and saying, ‘Oops, we killed a guy that we shouldn’t have killed.” He predicted that it will conclude — wrongly — that Willingham was an isolated incident, or a problem that has been remedied and won’t happen again.