Monday, April 18, 2011

Texas Commission Continues Investigation into Arson Conviction that Resulted in Execution

The Texas Forensic Science Commission reviewing the arson investigation that led to the execution of Cameron Todd Willingham made far-reaching recommendations last week to improve and modernize fire investigations.

The report's 16 recommendations could collectively prod state and local fire investigators to adhere to modern investigative standards that have evolved over the past two decades, according to the Fort Worth Star-Telegram.

The commission opened its inquiry in December 2008 after receiving a petition from the Innocence Project. Craig Beyler, a Baltimore fire expert who was hired to review the Willingham arson investigation, concluded that investigators relied on outmoded techniques. He raised the possibility that the fire was set accidentally. A 2009 New Yorker Article by David Grann also generated a great deal of interest in Willingham’s prosecution.

At least eight other experts have reached similar conclusions, according to the Star-Telegram.

Two days before Beyler was to testify before the commission in 2009, Governor Rick Perry dismissed four members of the commission, including the chairman. He then appointed Williamson County District Attorney John Bradley as chairman. Bradley's appointment has never been confirmed by the state Senate and is now stalled in a committee. He can serve until the Legislature adjourns in May.

The commission's inquiry involved two cases -- Willingham's and that of Ernest Ray Willis, who was convicted for setting a 1986 house fire that killed two sleeping women in the small West Texas town of Iraan. Willis, who spent 17 years on Death Row, was set free when prosecutors dropped the case after an inquiry indicated that the fire was accidental, reported the Star-Telegram.

Willingham's three daughters died in the fire at their Corsicana home in 1991. Willingham was convicted of setting the fire and killing them, and he was executed in 2004. He repeatedly maintained his innocence. Death penalty opponents point to Willingham as the first innocent person executed in the modern era of the death penalty. The commission has not yet made that finding.

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