Inmate wrongly executed


Whenever I think I miss living in Austin, I am reminded that Austin is part of Texas.

Four of the nation's top arson experts have concluded that the state of Texas executed a man in 2004 based on scientifically invalid evidence, and on Tuesday they called for an official reinvestigation of the case.

In their report, the experts, assembled by the Innocence Project, a non-profit organization responsible for scores of exonerations, concluded that the conviction and 2004 execution of Cameron Todd Willingham for the arson-murders of his three daughters were based on interpretations by fire investigators that have been scientifically disproved.

“The whole system has broken down,” Barry Scheck, co-founder and director of the Innocence Project, said at a news conference at the state Capitol in Austin. “It's time to find out whether Texas has executed an innocent man.”

The experts were asked to perform an independent review of the evidence after an investigation by the Tribune that showed Willingham had been found guilty on arson theories that have been repudiated by scientific advances. In fact, many of the theories were simply lore that had been handed down by generations of arson investigators who relied on what they were told.

The report's conclusions match the findings of the Tribune, published in December 2004. The newspaper began investigating the Willingham case following an October 2004 series, “Forensics Under the Microscope,” which examined the use of forensics in the courtroom, including the continued use of disproved arson theories to obtain convictions.

In strong language harshly critical of the investigation of the 1991 fire in Corsicana, southeast of Dallas, the report said evidence examined in the Willingham case and “relied upon by fire investigators” was the type of evidence “routinely created by accidental fires.”

Report: Inmate wrongly executed

At Willingham's trial, Vasquez and Corsicana Assistant Fire Chief Doug Fogg testified that the fire was deliberately set and pointed to numerous “indicators” as proof. One of those indicators was “crazed glass,” a phenomenon that they said was caused by a fire that burned so hot and so fast that it could only have been caused by an accelerant.

But the new report notes that scientific testing has established that crazed glass can be caused by spraying water on hot glass; in effect, the act of extinguishing a fire was being used to prove that the fire was an arson.

When he was strapped to the gurney to be executed, Willingham said, “I am an innocent man, convicted of a crime I did not commit.”

The report calls on the criminal justice system to require arson investigators to have backgrounds in the science of fire and that criminal defense lawyers be afforded money to hire independent fire investigators. It also urges that participants in the justice system, particularly prosecutors, who decide whether to bring charges, be educated about scientific advances in fire investigation.

“There is no crime other than homicide by arson for which a person can be sent to Death Row based on the unsupported opinion of someone who received all of his training `on the job,'” the report states.

At the news conference Tuesday, Lentini said the analysis of the testimony by fire investigators in the Willis and Willingham cases shows that “over and over and over again, they repeated the mythology. ... These guys didn't know what they were talking about.”

One member of the Texas Forensic Science Commission, Austin attorney Sam Bassett, said Tuesday that the panel has yet to schedule its first meeting and is awaiting legislative approval for funding for travel and other expenses.

He said that based on reading some of the report, “certainly this is a potential nightmare scenario that everybody talks about--the execution of an innocent person. I would hope that this would merit our attention.”

Eugenia Willingham, Willingham's stepmother, who lives in Ardmore, Okla., attended the news conference as well. She wept as she said, “We want the truth to be known in Todd's case. We want to keep this from ever happening again.”
Find the “Forensics Under the Microscope” series and an interactive case file at www.chicago

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I generally support the death penalty for heinous cases BEYOND ANY REASONABLE DOUBT BUT this is so utterly sickening that this miscarriage of INjustice ever happens plus the extremely sick arrogant smug closed minded smartass jerk TEXANS with ruthless KNOWITALL judges, jury, prosecutors and general people who so cold cocky sure of their frankly UNJUST VERDICTS just as sure as they were the DEVIL'S!!!! This reveals their idiocy, hypocrisy, ugly gross arrogance despite the facts just like burning witches at the stake. Those Texans mentioned here do NOT have the mental capacity to serve in the Justice System because they do NOT understand the meaning of "Beyond a reasonable doubt" in its precise exact meaning!!!!

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This page contains a single entry by Seth A. published on May 3, 2006 8:21 AM.

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