Blackburn predicted that beyond DNA cases, which are increasingly few and far between (because most cases have no DNA evidence, and most DNA evidence collected wasn't preserved), arson cases could constitute the next wave of exonerations in Texas. More than 800 people are in Texas prisons over arson convictions, he said, and dozens if not hundreds were convicted based on forensic science that's no longer considered valid.
Texas' most infamous arson case targeting a possibly innocent man resulted in the execution of Todd Willingham in 2006, and a Chicago Tribune investigative report concluded that he was likely innocent and the fire could have been an accident:
Before Willingham died by lethal injection on Feb. 17, 2006, Texas judges and Gov. Rick Perry turned aside a report from a prominent fire scientist questioning the conviction.For the record, of course, forensic assessments couldn't be "true then, but [not] now." The science was flawed at the time of the conviction, but arson investigators portrayed their ignorance and flawed assumptions to the court as "expert testimony." As a result, Todd Willingham paid with his life. Now it appears those experts may have sent dozens or even hundreds of innocent people to prison.
The author of the report, Gerald Hurst, reviewed additional documents, trial testimony and an hourlong videotape of the aftermath of the fire scene at the Tribune's request last month. Three other fire investigators--private consultants John Lentini and John DeHaan and Louisiana fire chief Kendall Ryland--also examined the materials for the newspaper.
"There's nothing to suggest to any reasonable arson investigator that this was an arson fire," said Hurst, a Cambridge University-educated chemist who has investigated scores of fires in his career. "It was just a fire."
Ryland, chief of the Effie Fire Department and a former fire instructor at Louisiana State University, said that, in his workshop, he tried to re-create the conditions the original fire investigators described.
When he could not, he said, it "made me sick to think this guy was executed based on this investigation. ... They executed this guy and they've just got no idea--at least not scientifically--if he set the fire, or if the fire was even intentionally set."
Even Edward Cheever, one of the state deputy fire marshals who had assisted in the original investigation of the 1991 fire, acknowledged that Hurst's criticism was valid.
"At the time of the Corsicana fire, we were still testifying to things that aren't accurate today," he said. "They were true then, but they aren't now.
"Hurst," he added, "was pretty much right on. ... We know now not to make those same assumptions."
If it's true hundreds of others were convicted based on the same, flawed forensic science, in the future we may see arson cases ending in exonerations at a greater frequency, even, than DNA cases today.
Related Dallas News editorial: Even Non-DNA Cases Deserve Scrutiny
See Also: Many arson convictions based on invalid science