A judge on the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals, which has the power to overturn death sentences and halt executions, wants to improve the criminal justice system's understanding of fire science in the wake of a possibly flawed arson investigation in the Cameron Todd Willingham case.
Willingham was executed in 2004 for killing his three young children by setting fire to his Corsicana house.
Judge Barbara Hervey said her interest in the issue was piqued by recent reports that Cameron's conviction relied on bad science, now-disproved theories and personal bias from arson investigators.
"Science progresses all the time, and we need to have a better understanding of fire science," Hervey said Tuesday.
Last week, Hervey ventured to the state archives building to read Willingham's court file, which included the first report — by Austin chemist Gerald Hurst — to question the 1991 arson ruling.
The Court of Criminal Appeals dismissed that appeal, filed four days before Willingham's execution, ruling that Hurst's findings should have been raised earlier.
Hervey, who joined the court in 2001, said she came away from her reading with no conclusions about Willingham's case but with a desire to have the Texas Criminal Justice Integrity Unit investigate fire science. ...
"Arson is not something (courts) deal with on a regular basis," Hervey said. "The one thing I think we can accomplish is to at least educate people" about improvements in fire science and arson investigative techniques.
The integrity unit, Hervey said, would complement work being done by the Texas Forensic Science Commission.
I'm glad to learn Judge Hervey is concerned about arson cases, but this court needs to do more than promote "education" about arson science - they need to start granting habeas relief in arson cases where convictions were based on lousy, discredited forensics. In fact, they should look for an appellate case through which they can judicially ban dated arson forensics from Texas courtrooms once and for all. The CCA missed their chance to do that in the Todd Willingham case, but there's no shortage of additional opportunities going forward.