Saturday, October 09, 2010

Peerwani: Arson testimony in Willingham case flawed

Regardless of the outcome of delayed court of inquiry proceedings, one of Gov. Perry's recent appointees to the Texas Forensic Science Commission says that the arson science used to convict Todd Willingham was flawed, reports the Fort Worth Star-Telegram ("Willingham inquiry was flawed, Peerwani says," Oct. 8):
Conclusions made by arson investigators in the Corsicana case that ended with a man's execution were wrong by today's standards, Tarrant County Medical Examiner Nizam Peerwani said Friday.

But whether there is enough evidence to conclude that Cameron Todd Willingham was guilty or not guilty of killing his three daughters in 1991 is a question for the courts to decide, Peerwani said during a seminar at the Texas Wesleyan law school.

Peerwani, appointed by Gov. Rick Perry in December to the state Forensic Science Commission, ticked off flaws in the arson report that helped lead to Willingham's conviction and execution.

Among them, he said, investigators were wrong to conclude that the fire that swept Willingham's home had multiple starting points and that patterns indicated that an accelerant had been used, Peerwani said. By current standards of science, none of things that the arson investigators cited indicate arson, he said. But standards in the early '90s were evolving, he said.

The forensic science commission is scheduled to meet in November to review the arson investigation.
"Texas is home to more verified wrongful convictions than any other state in the nation," Peerwani said.
As I've said before, to me it's not nearly as important (since he's already dead) to determine whether or not Todd Willingham was innocent as whether the science used to convict him (and many hundreds of others) was inaccurate and flawed. Peerwani's comments make me hopeful that scientists on the Forensic Science Commission will continue to rebuff Chairman John Bradley and insist on a thorough vetting of flawed arson science in the Willingham case and other old arson cases.

19 comments:

Anonymous said...

It may not be important to you, but it is important to his family and it is important to other people still on death row or who may land on death row in the future and who may be innocent, because having executed an innocent person may lead to reforms in the clemency process that could save other innocent people from being executed.

What it really should lead to is a moratorium on executions so that other reforms could be carefully considered that could also prevent another innocent person from being executed.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

4:45 says "It may not be important to you, but it is important to his family and it is important to other people still on death row or who may land on death row in the future and who may be innocent"

To be blunt, it won't make him any less dead. And I seriously doubt there's a remote chance it would lead to a moratorium, even if he were 100% exonerated.

As for "reforms ... that could save other innocent people from being executed," IMO those would be MORE likely to occur, particularly regarding arson, if it were a non-death penalty case where where flawed forensics were being most prominently debated.

Anonymous said...

Those poll numbers will change as soon as there is a person proven to have been innocent who was executed.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

If wishes were horses, beggars would ride.

zeety said...

yea, grits, it's not important someone was murdered under the auspices of state authority. you keep fucking that chicken.

sunray's wench said...

Do we know yet if anything will come up in next year's Legislative session relating to this?

Gloria Rubac said...

It may not be important to you but I would like to introduce you to his mother and his family. It is very important to them. They have suffered for almost 2 decades. They lost Todd and they lost former friends in their small town who asked his mother, "How could you have raised a boy who would murder his own children?" She can go to the grocery store or to the bank and NO ONE will speak to her--these are people she has known her whole life.

Yes, it is important to her.

Anonymous said...

Flawed testimony does not equal innocence or even exoneration. Juries may still find remaining evidence to be compelling.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

Zeety/Gloria: I didn't say it's "not important." I said it's not "as important" to me as the scientific debate.

Someone please tell me: Who tangibly benefits if he's "proven" innocent? He and his kids are still dead. He won't come home to his mother or family. No one will be punished for relying on the investigation techniques of the day. And most people who already believe an innocent person was executed (and IMO there are other strong candidates besides Willingham) still support the death penalty. So who, specifically, benefits and how? Add to that the fact that since you can't prove a negative, you'll never prove he DIDN"T do it, only that the evidence used to convict him was flawed. The conflicting eyewitness testimony will always leave room for doubt among those predisposed to support the system.

However, who benefits if the flawed arson science is discredited? There are many people currently locked up based on similar junk science who might be freed. And many more with criminal records who could be cleared and their lives immediately improved. They have families, too, but because all the pro- and anti-death penalty types want to hijack the debate and make it about Willingham's innocence instead of flawed forensics, those people are LESS likely to be helped. They're still alive and they've also got mothers. But hey, why should you care about that if it interferes with an abolitionist agenda?

Anonymous said...

Grits may think it's more important that the issue of flawed arson science be reckoned with, helping those now incarcerated and those who fall in the future. I don't think he doesn't care about the legacy of TCW or his family or all those before him, now, or in the future, all victims of the acceptance of faulty science (and inability to admit being wrong). His coverage of the case is exceptional.

I do wish all those involved in TCW's exoneration success. He and his family deserve it.

Anonymous said...

Scott - "if wishes were horses, beggars would ride" Never heard that. Where did it come from?

Plato

Anonymous said...

Grits, I'm glad you're getting to see first hand how rabidly delusional death penalty abolitionists really are. This is what prosecutors and the families of murder victims have been having to endure for years. They have absolutely no regard for the truth, or reason or common sense. To them, the end ALWAYS justifies the means.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

1:12, stay off your high horse. The pro-DP people are just as bad.

Plato, my father used that phrase my whole life. I don't know where he got it.

zeety said...

What's the other adage, oh yea, the enemy of the better is the good.

I see no reason why you can't both improve forensic science methods to help those currently convicted and abolish the death penalty. But I can see why it's asking too much. Especially when you have politicians like Bradley making stupid comments about the Innocence Project's lawyers being from New York City.

Remember the old Pace Picante sauce commercial? Get a rope

R. Shackleford said...

I don't really have anything appropriate to add, but I will say that zeety's comment about the chicken made me laugh so hard I sprayed coffee all over my keyboard:)

Anonymous said...

Isn’t this something that Accreditation and external auditors should have noticed? Either the lack of clarification in the SOPs, or the lack of ANY dissenting opinions in lab reports or notes by analysts? How well is this Accreditation requirement (law) working?

Anonymous said...

Maybe if one person, like Todd Willingham, is proven innocent, it might still not shake the confidence in the system of the people who will still want to cling to the death penalty no matter what, but when the person after Todd Willingham is proven innocent, and like Grits says there are some likely cases of innocent people already executed, then the death penalty will be ended.

zeety said...

And see, Rusty, I made that comment 12 days ago and you're the only one who got it. Pathetic bunch of neanderthals.

halides1 said...

GritsforBreakfast,

Let me try to make the case for coupling the death penalty debate to the flawed forensics debate (despite your thoughtful remarks). I am sure we all appreciate the strides that arson science has made in the last thirty years. However, what about other forensic sciences, some of which are perhaps in a similar state of flux? Not putting people to death makes sense solely on the grounds that future advances in forensic sciences may challenge present day verities.