Friday, August 15, 2008

Forensic Science Commission will investigate science behind Cameron Willingham's capital arson conviction

The Texas Forensic Science Commission met in Houston today and voted to take on their first independent investigation involving an alleged wrongful conviction stemming from flawed forensic science - the case of Cameron Willingham, executed for an arson crime in which the arson investigators on the case later admitted they'd relied on flawed science for their conclusions. Reported AP:
A state panel has voted to investigate whether a man executed for setting a fire that killed his three daughters actually started the blaze.

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.

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.

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:


Anonymous said...

I'll be curious to see the results of the investigation. Anecdotal information suggests that the late defendant was trying to get people to help him move his Camarro from the garage while his children were in the house while it was on fire.

While, if true, it is proof of nothing, it is certainly bizarre behavior to say the least.

I'll see if the trial transcripts are available for review to see if there was ever any testimony about his behavior as people were arriving on the scene.

Anonymous said...

His behavior was odd, but people in shock frequently behave oddly. The issue here is the science that was used to establish the fire was arson. The science was junk, and under Texas law, all fires are considered accidental until proved otherwise. If the state's case doesn't establish that the fire was arson, that's the ballgame to my mind.

Ryan Paige said...

"While, if true, it is proof of nothing, it is certainly bizarre behavior to say the least."

One of the problems we've seen in erroneous identifications is police believing some behavior is so abnormal as to be evidence of guilt.

When, in fact, people do weird things when panicked.

One of the people who testified in the trial to Willingham's odd behavior said that he didn't do enough to try and save his kids (and, later, a chaplain said Willingham seemed "too distraught" at the loss of his kids). Meanwhile, this particular person did nothing to try and save the kids. Is she guilty of starting the fire?

I mean, Willingham did more to try and save the kids than she did (he entered the rooms before he escaped the house but was unable to find the kids, he went outside and broke out windows in an attempt to enter from the outside but was unable to. He went to a neighbors house and had them call the fire department).

This lady apparently stood and watched, doing nothing else. Didn't try and help at all. Isn't that suspicious?

I don't think anybody is saying that, when there's a fire in which people die, there's no reason to investigate and see if it was arson. But when the true science says it wasn't, then the case for death better be a lot more than he was too upset about losing his kids and that he tried to move his car after failing to save his kids.