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Forensic Science Commission gets its report on Willingham case

It’s going to be a lot harder for anyone to claim with a straight face that the state of Texas has never executed an innocent man.

Key testimony that sent a Corsicana auto mechanic to the execution chamber for setting a house fire that killed three young children was based on faulty investigations that ignored eyewitness reports and failed to follow accepted scientific procedures, an expert review of the case concludes.

While the 51-page report by nationally known fire scientist Craig Beyler stops short of charging that Cameron Willingham wrongfully was sent to his death, it dismisses as slipshod the investigations by Deputy State Fire Marshal Manuel Vasquez and Corsicana Assistant Fire Chief Douglas Fogg. Willingham maintained his innocence until his execution in 2004.

“The only statement I want to make is that I am an innocent man — convicted of a crime I did not commit,” Willingham said from the death house gurney.

The men’s investigations into the December 1991 blaze at Willingham’s residence failed to meet current standards of the National Fire Prevention Association or even standards that were in place at the time of the fire, Beyler wrote.

Some of the testimony Vasquez offered to support his claim that the fire was set to kill Willingham’s 1-year-old twins and 2-year-old stepdaughter, Beyler contended, was “hardly consistent with a scientific mind-set and is more characteristic of mystics or psychics.”

Beyler performed the review for Baltimore-based Hughes Associates Inc., a global fire protection engineering firm commissioned last year by the Texas Forensic Science Commission. The commission was created by the Legislature in response to the Houston Crime Lab scandal and other irregularities at state forensic labs.

Commission Chairman Sam Bassett, an Austin lawyer, said the panel will interview Beyler at its Oct. 2 meeting in Irving. Bassett said the commission will seek a response from the state fire marshal’s office. Vasquez died in 1994.

“This is a major step in the commission’s review,” the chairman said in an e-mail, “but it is by no means the end of the investigation.”

For more background on the Willingham case and other questionable arson cases in Texas, see here, here, and here. The Chicago Tribune, whose 2004 article on Willingham got the ball rolling on all this, has their own story, which contains this ending that may prove to be sadly prophetic.

Contacted Monday, one of Willingham’s cousins said she was pleased with the report but was skeptical that state officials would acknowledge Willingham’s innocence.

“They are definitely going to have to respond to it,” said Pat Cox. “But it’s difficult for me to believe that the State of Texas or the governor will take responsibility and admit they did in fact wrongfully execute Todd. They’ll dance around it.”

There is enough wiggle room to do that, if you’ve got a Sharon Keller/Antonin Scalia view of what “innocence” is. As encouraging as it was to see the state do the right thing in the Timothy Cole case, this is a step I’m not sure the powers that be are ready to take. I’ll be happy to be proven wrong about that. Grits and The Contrarian have more.

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5 Comments

  1. Baby Snooks says:

    If pressed, the district attorney who prosecuted the case will echo Chuck Rosenthal who when pressed about one case where the defendant was exonerated by DNA responded that it didn’t matter because HE knew the defendant was guilty. Which was the end of the subject.

    Reality is some Republicans, most of them sitting on our benches and in our legislature, would rather execute one innocent person here and there just in order to execute as many guilty people as possible. Particularly if they’re minorities. Keeps the rest of the minorities in their place. Supposedly.

    And then of course you have the possibility of some of these defendants having merely “rubbed someone the wrong way” and finding themselves charged with something the district attorney knows they didn’t do. But, well, they owe someone a favor so why not?

    Texas is a very dangerous place to live. And this is another reminder of how dangerous it is.

  2. Scott Cobb says:

    For everyone who is concerned that Texas has executed a person who was innocent of the crime for which he was executed, please join us in Austin at the Texas Capitol on October 24, 2009 for the 10th Annual March to Abolish the Death Penalty.

    http://marchforabolition.org

    At the 7th Annual March in 2006, the family of Todd Willingham attended and delivered a letter to Governor Perry that said in part:

    “We are the family of Cameron Todd Willingham. Our names are Eugenia Willingham, Trina Willingham Quinton and Joshua Easley. Todd was an innocent person executed by Texas on February 17, 2004. We have come to Austin today from Ardmore, Oklahoma to stand outside the Texas Governor’s Mansion and attempt to deliver this letter to you in person, because we want to make sure that you know about Todd’s innocence and to urge you to stop executions in Texas and determine why innocent people are being executed in Texas.”

    “Please ensure that no other family suffers the tragedy of seeing one of their loved ones wrongfully executed. Please enact a moratorium on executions and create a special blue ribbon commission to study the administration of the death penalty in Texas. Texas also needs a statewide Office of Public Defenders for Capital Cases. Such an office will go a long way towards preventing innocent people from being executed. A moratorium will ensure that no other innocent people are executed while the system is being studied and reforms implemented.”

    Perry never responded to the Willingham family’s letter.

  3. […] the recent news about Cameron Willingham, I can’t criticize that kind of caution on the DA’s part. Justice Medina still has […]

  4. […] that the Texas Commission on Forensic Sciences has received its report on the botched investigation of Cameron Todd Willingham and the likelihood that he was convicted […]

  5. […] the Todd Willingham case review is that the Texas Forensic Science Commission will be reviewing the Beyler report about the shoddy investigation of the fire on Friday. I hope, though the story doesn’t say, […]

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