A state panel has voted to investigate whether a man executed for setting a fire that killed his three daughters actually started the blaze.For more background on the Cameron Willingham case, see this excellent Chicago Tribune feature analyzing forensic errors and this independent peer review (pdf) of the science in Willingham's case.
The Texas Forensic Science Commission on Friday agreed to review investigators' conclusions that Cameron Todd Willingham set a fire at his family's home in Corsicana two days before Christmas in 1991. He was executed in 2004.
The commission's decision came after the Innocence Project, a legal group that specializes in overturning wrongful convictions, requested the case be reviewed. Trial evidence suggested an accelerant was used to start the deadly blaze. But the Innocence Project says experts in a report it commissioned concluded the fire was not intentionally set.
This is the first investigation to be conducted by the commission, created in 2005 to look into allegations of forensic misconduct.
More than 800 people are in Texas prisons over arson charges, and dozens if not hundreds of older arson convictions were based on forensic science that's no longer considered valid. Thus the Forensic Science Commissions review of the Willingham case has two-fold importance. Their investigation could lead to proving for the first time that Texas has definitely executed an innocent person - a matter of great dispute among death penalty abolitionists and proponents - and going forward their findings could lead to re-evaluating many other cases where shoddy forensic science led to false convictions in arson cases.
MORE: Read a reaction to the FSC's decision and a prior post on the case in a DailyKos diary from the son of one of the investigators who participated in the above-mentioned peer review. At Talk Left, see also the discussion in the comments between defenders of the original conviction and the Kos diarist. See also coverage from the Houston Chronicle.
See prior related Grits posts: