Thursday, May 01, 2008

Arson cases may be next venue for innocence claims

I spent yesterday afternoon with Jeff Blackburn of the Innocence Project of Texas, who was in Austin to visit with legislators and media about James Lee Woodard, an innocent man who spent 27 years in prison for a crime he didn't commit. Woodard walked out of court in Dallas a free man on Tuesday.

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.

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."
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.

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

15 comments:

rage said...

This is timely. Hey Judge Medina, you reading this?

(Arson cases border on junk science, fueled by insurance companies refusing to pay claims. Good thing it's next.)

Gritsforbreakfast said...

I thought about linking to that case in this discussion, rage, but I'm afraid the faulty forensic arson theories that convicted Willingham and others are now out of vogue, so this may not help Judge Medina as much as it could exonerate folks currently incarcerated.

Anonymous said...

Experts testimony is "state of the art".

The state of the art in astronomy once held the Earth in the center of the universe.

Would you insult Ptolemy the way you insult these fire investigators?

Then Copernicus and Galileo came along and insisted the sun was at the center.

What a bunch of morons ehh?

Don't be so sour about the past, everyone was doing the best they could with the available information.

Be thankful for our new more accurate science... and know that one day something even BETTER will come along.

Hindsight is 20/20.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

I'm not insulting fire investigators. I'm saying their science was wrong and their inaccurate testimony caused Mr. Willingham's death and possibly dozens or hundreds of wrongful convictions.

If NASA sent up a rocket ship based on Ptolemy's calculations and it crashed and burned, I'd also say he was wrong and his miscalculations caused the tragedy.

Finally, it's easy to say "don't be sour about the past" when you aren't the one sent to death row based on the mistake.

Hindsight is 20/20, and with that clarity we can now see that many injustices have occurred in arson cases. Should we not say so?

Anonymous said...

"Hindsight is 20/20, and with that clarity we can now see that many injustices have occurred in arson cases."


Yes but your approach is all wrong. It was flawed science that led to injustices, but it was state of the art at the time.

The way you write it implies that malice or recklessness on the part of the arson investigators.

You can fight the system without insulting the individuals working within the system. Indeed the people on the inside may be your most powerful allies.

You get more flies with honey than vinegar.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

Who said anything about the investigators' motives? And who cares if their errors were "state of the art"? Not anyone wrongfully convicted.

I did not say the investigators acted in bad faith. I said they were wrong and their ignorance may have killed somebody and put many innocent people in prison. It's true.

I may have spoken bluntly, but I don't think it's "insulting" to say someone made errors that led to harmful results, if it's true, and don't see much benefit to be gained from sugarcoating the facts. "Good faith" or not, that doesn't change the tragedy in the Willingham case or any of these others.

I'm frankly tired of pussyfooting around innocence issues because police, forensic scientists or prosecutors get defensive when somebody says they screwed up. That's one of the refreshing things about the Dallas DNA cases - for once the DA isn't being defensive about past mistakes, and look how much credit he gets for it. best,

AnonD said...

Amen to that Grits! I have never understood why people whose jobs are to “see that justice is done” get so defensive about innocent folks being sprung from the pen. If you want to know what prosecutors really think about all this innocence business, pop over to TDCAA (Texas District and County Attorney Associations). Check out their forums – every time another person is exonerated, you can find God’s little soldiers lamenting about all those “wrongful acquittals” and how statistics on the exonerated are skewed anyway!rnckddt

Walter said...

I represented Todd Willingham in the last stages of his post conviction litigation. After presenting evidence that the fire had not been intentionally set, we couldn't even get the Court of Criminal Appeals to order an evidentiary hearing. We presented the same evidence to the governor's office trying to get a stay, and I'll never forgot the response I received from one his representatives right before the execution: "the governor doesn't see anything which suggests a reason to stay the execution". We sure wouldn't want a technicality like "innocence" to get in the way.

I have another case out of Waco which involves almost identical facts. The Waco paper recently ran a story on the case, and you would not believe the comments that were posted to the web site blasting us for re-opening the case.

I hope Jeff is right, but I'm not convinced Courts are going to grant relief in these cases. No matter what people say, they (especially courts) still don't want to admit someone has been falsely convicted.

anonD said...

Case in point - today on the TDCAA criminal forums, Williamson county DA John Bradley (JB) starts a thread on "Counting the Innocent" in which he writes: "For an interesting perspective on how we count the truly exonerated, read this blog...it is a more balanced response to the wail and cry about a system supposedly all broken."

I guess we should tell those people who have spent 5, 10, 15, 20 years in prison for crimes they didn't commit that it’s enough with the wail and cry already!

Anonymous said...

... 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.

I'm sure you could think of a much more diplomatic way to express these feelings without "pussyfooting" or "sugarcoating the facts." The tone of your rhetoric is likely to alienate some of those who are in the best position to change the system for the better.

Maybe you don't really care about change and are more interested in outrageous controversy for the sake of links and clicks.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

2:25, as Todd Willingham's lawyer pointed out regarding his conversations with the Governor's office on this topic, diplomacy only gets you so far.

You don't appear to dispute my points, you just wanted to see a paragraph saying "fire investigators are all upstanding Americans who would never intentionally lie in court." So there, I said it. They didn't know they were testifying to pseudoscience when "expert" testimony put Willingham to death and wrongly convicted others.

Will fire investigators now lead the charge to get these guys out of prison, or will that still require a tooth and nail fight against people unwilling to admit they made a mistake? My guess is the latter.

Anonymous said...

One of the main thing that makes this nation so great is our capacity as citizens to criticize the government. This really improves the life of most everyone and also reduces corruption as compared to more authoritarian regimes.

That said, you should always approach these people with the assumption that they want to do the right thing... Often you will be disappointed but sometimes you will be rewarded. You will eventually gain their trust and maybe you will find an ally for justice.

The use of such inflamatory language might make YOU feel better, but it definately raises the hackles of the workers inside the system.

Before long, anyone that questions the status quo is viewed as a bomb-throwing radical. Congratulations, not only did you not solve anything, you also made it more different for the rest of us to do any good.

Don't be a Reverend Write and sink your own cause.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

You disagree with nothing I've said, apparently, but are unhappy with the tone in one line of this post that you do not factually dispute. I'm sorry if the tone offended you, even if the facts supported the statement.

That said, where are these "allies" within the system on innocence? Outside of the Dallas DA's office, as far as I can tell they're few and far between. On arson, who within the system is fighting to review these cases?

As for comparing me to Reverend Wright, do you really think stating forthrightly that errors by forensic scientists caused wrongful convictions is the same as open racial mockery, claiming blacks were targeted with AIDS, or blaming the victims for 9/11? Now who's radical? That's just silly.

When folks in the system step forward to do the right thing, I give full credit where credit's due. When they don't, though, I don't insult my readers by pretending that reformers somehow populate a silent majority, when in fact you and I both know that many in the system fight any effort to review bad convictions, as Walter described in his current case in Waco.

If you work in the system, show me I'm wrong. Give me a reason to have such faith in good intentions. Otherwise, that's what the road to hell is paved with.

Thanks for the tactical advice, though. best,

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