News reports of today’s Court of Inquiry hearing in Todd Willingham innocence case.
The New York Times reports in Family’s Effort to Clear Name Frames Debate on Executions:
But they also say that the hearing is more than symbolic — it could cast in a new light the Lone Star State’s record on executions. And more broadly, they argue, it is a cautionary tale about the power of flawed science to sway a courtroom, and a glaring injustice that could affect debates over the fairness of the death penalty.
That debate has been framed, in part, by a 2006 opinion written by Justice Antonin Scalia of the United States Supreme Court, in which he said that the dissent in a case had not cited “a single case — not one — in which it is clear that a person was executed for a crime he did not commit.”
Many who oppose the death penalty have taken Justice Scalia’s statement as a challenge, and argue that the Willingham case is their proof.
During an unprecedented hearing completed just before an appeals court ordered it to stop, state District Judge Charlie Baird on Thursday heard from two leading fire experts who said Cameron Todd Willingham, executed in 2004, was convicted based on faulty science.
A jury convicted Willingham in 1992 of killing his three young daughters by setting fire to his Corsicana house. Shortly before his execution, the first in a string of experts found that investigators relied on bogus science to determine that the fire was intentionally set.
“There is not a single item of evidence at that fire scene that would even suggest this was arson,” said Gerald Hurst, an Austin chemist who has studied fire for decades.
Lawyers for Willingham’s family petitioned Baird last month to pronounce that Willingham was wrongfully executed and to determine whether there is probable cause that state officials committed a crime in their handling of his case just before execution.
After a hearing that lasted a little more than three hours, Baird said he would make a ruling on the case at a later date.
About that same time — just before 5 p.m. — the 3rd Court of Appeals in Austin ordered Baird not to take any further action in the case.
“Given the science that we know today,” Scheck said, that testimony is “false, misleading and totally unreliable.”
Fire scientist John Lentini, who reviewed the Willingham case after the execution, told Baird that some of the indicators Vasquez relied on to reach his conclusions were outdated at the time — and nearly all were considered obsolete by the time Willingham was executed.
“A lot of people believed that back in 1991,” Lentini said. “Now in 2004, nobody believed that.”