Off the Kuff Rotating Header Image

Fire Marshall

Sonia Cacy

A long-time-coming story of actual innocence.

A judge has ruled that Sonia Cacy, a West Texas woman convicted of setting her uncle on fire, is innocent of murder, basing his decision on new analysis of evidence presented at her 1993 trial.

“The cumulation of evidence supports Applicant’s claim of actual innocence,” visiting state District Judge Bert Richardson said in his ruling, filed Monday in Pecos County. “This court finds that Applicant makes a compelling case for actual innocence, given the overwhelming evidence.”

[…]

Cacy had served five years of a 99-year murder sentence for the 1991 death of her uncle, Bill Richardson. The two were living in his Fort Stockton home when it caught fire. Prosecutors said Cacy had set her uncle on fire, also burning the home, to get the money he left to her in his will.

But multiple experts — including the State Fire Marshal’s office — concluded that Cacy did not set her uncle ablaze. Some suspected that Richardson, a smoker, likely died of a heart attack and that the fire was accidental. Cacy was released on parole after The Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles received one of the reports, but her conviction was never lifted. The Pecos County District Attorney and the Bexar County medical examiner’s office had stood by the original investigation results.

Judge Richardson’s ruling was largely based on a 2013 state Fire Marshal’s Office report that discredited trial testimony that there was an accelerant found at the crime scene.

“The findings of the State Fire Marshal’s Office — a state organized and endorsed office — are the strongest evidence that no accelerant was present and that Bill Richardson likely died of a heart attack before being burned,” Judge Richardson wrote in a ruling that comes two years after Richardson first heard Cacy’s petition for relief in Fort Stockton.

I have to admit, this story is not one I was familiar with. The link in the quoted bit above is to a Trib story from 2010, but it goes back much farther than that. Texas Monthly adds some details to what happened this week.

Cacy’s journey through the legal system has been long, winding, and complicated. During at punishment retrial in 1996, her new attorney enlisted Dr. Gerald Hurst, the late Cambridge-educated chemist from Austin, to evaluate the forensic evidence that clinched conviction against her. Hurst discovered that the original tests, conducted by Joe Castorena of the Bexar County Forensics Lab, had been completely misread. The results didn’t find the indicators of an accelerant as he claimed. Castorena, a toxicologist by training, had in fact identified the products of pyrolysis—compounds created by burning plastic, which in many ways are similar to those of an accelerant.

Hurst was convinced these compounds came from rubberized curtains and a polyurethane foam mattress, both of which were found burned at the crime scene. Cacy’s uncle was a chain smoker who was notoriously careless with lit cigarettes, one of the most common causes of household fires. Yet in spite of the evidence, a jury affirmed Cacy’s conviction in 1996 and re-sentenced her to life in prison.

By 1998, Hurst had become obsessed with the case, and had enlisted a panel of at least a dozen respected arson experts and pathologists, all of whom concluded that the fire was accidental, and that Richardson—a man of poor health—had died of a heart attack, possibly while attempting to extinguish the flames. The Board of Pardon and Paroles was moved by the reports and promptly released Cacy that year. Now, they would go about the work of establishing her innocence.

Her attorneys filed a complaint with the Texas Forensic Science Commission in 2010, but they could not have encountered a more unsympathetic audience; the commission’s presiding officer, John Bradley, was the law-and-order Williamson County district attorney who spent years opposing DNA testing in the Michael Morton case, testing that later cleared Morton of the murder of his wife. Bradley petitioned then-state attorney general Greg Abbott for a legal opinion preventing the commission from reviewing Cacy’s case. Abbott delivered, opining that any cases prior to the formation of the commission in 2005 were out of bounds—namely Cacy’s.

Her attorneys turned to the newly reformed State Fire Marshal’s Office, whose scientific advisory panel conducted a lengthy examination of the case and concluded that there was no evidence of arson. Cacy took the report to the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals in 2012, along with some shocking new evidence: Castorena, the toxicologist, admitted in a letter to her counsel, Dallas lawyer Gary Udashen, that the clothing samples he’d tested had been contaminated in either the morgue or the lab. Thus, his baffling reasoning went, anyone who didn’t know about the contamination couldn’t accurately interpret the results. Asked why he never reported this, Castorena replied, “nobody asked me.”

It gets more ridiculous from there. Texas Monthly has three other stories about the history of the case, which as the second one notes was one of the driving forces in reforming how fire investigations are done in Texas and why old arson cases are being reviewed to see which ones relied on bogus, outdated investigative techniques. It’s a little jolting to see John Bradley’s name pop up in this discussion, but hardly surprising. And please, can we scrub the descriptor “law-and-order” from stories involving Bradley? We know full well by now that he was the opposite of “law-and-order” – he was an unscrupulous liar who worked tirelessly to keep innocent people in jail. The adjectives he deserves are all some variation on “disgraced”. Anyway, click on all the links and learn more about Sonia Cacy and how terribly wronged she was by the justice system. The fact that this wrong is finally being made right doesn’t change any of what happened in the past.

The explosion in West will change nothing

That’s just how we roll around here.

A year after the blast killed 15 people and injured hundreds, Texas lawmakers have yet to propose or put into action any major reforms in an attempt to prevent future industrial accidents, whether it’s at a small, rural fertilizer retailer or a petrochemical plant along the Houston Ship Channel.

The disconnect reflects a state famously wary of government regulations. Even in West, about 120 miles north of Austin, some residents sound more concerned about the length of freight trains rolling through town than the absence of new rules for chemical plants.

It’s impossible to know whether stricter rules would have prevented the disaster, but some say the lack of action is putting lives in jeopardy.

“The bottom line is, there hasn’t been any effort to do things that would prevent such a tragedy in the future,” said Elena Craft, a Texas-based health scientist for the Environmental Defense Fund. “It seems wrong that lives were lost in vain.”

Key lawmakers say changes are coming, but any new regulations likely will be tailored to improve safety at the 82 facilities permitted to store and sell ammonium nitrate, the nitrogen-rich compound that was involved in the devastating blast. It’s unlikely the yet-unseen agenda will involve sweeping legislation that alters the handling of hazardous materials at all chemical plants.

“We just cannot do business the same way,” said state Rep. Joe Pickett, D-El Paso, who chairs the House Committee on Homeland Security and Public Safety. “I want to turn the ought-to-dos into statute. But I want something that even the staunchest anti-regulation people say it’s a good idea.”

[…]

Pickett said he would like to assign authority for overseeing the handling and storage of fertilizer to one agency, most likely the state fire marshal’s office. There were eight state agencies with some oversight of the West plant or the explosion, and critics believe the patchwork regulatory approach allowed the West plant to slip through bureaucratic cracks.

For example, plant managers submitted to state and local agencies a document, known as a Tier II report, that shows how much ammonium nitrate is stored on site for sale to farmers. But no one flagged the large stockpile at the West facility, which reported in 2012 that it had at least 270 tons of the dangerously combustible chemical.

Pickett said he wants the Tier II reports to go directly to the state fire marshal’s office, which also would be responsible for inspecting facilities and instructing plant personnel on best safety practices. He also wants additional funding for training firefighters.

[…]

The Environmental Defense Fund’s Craft is skeptical about the Legislature’s willingness to produce significant reforms.

“I don’t think they see what happened in West as a real problem,” she said. “They kind of think of it as a one-off event and that it probably won’t happen again.”

Until the next one, that is. Can we at least agree that this is a problem?

Pickett also indicated a willingness to consider strengthening rules on the storage of ammonium nitrate. Connealy, the State Fire Marshal, said today that 46, nearly half, of the state’s 96 ammonium nitrate plants are housing the fertilizer in combustible wood-frame structures—just like in the West disaster. At the West fertilizer plant, the fire originated in the seed room and spread rapidly to consume the wood structure and the wood fertilizer bins.

“We have to keep fire away from ammonium nitrate,” he said. Connealy said requiring sprinkler systems or, alternatively, mandating that ammonium nitrate be stored in non-combustible storage bins made of concrete, stone or metal could go a long way toward avoiding another West-like disaster.

“I still worry about the 46 that are dangerous wood structures and we have no authority right now to go in and say change ‘em,” Pickett said.

Please tell me this isn’t too much to ask. I really didn’t expect much, but surely this is doable. Right? The DMN has more.

Assessing the risk of wildfires

While one hopes that it won’t be a problem this year, the Harris County Fire Marshall has come up with a plan to protect vulnerable areas from wildfires.

Four months ago, Harris County became the most populated county in the state to finalize a Community Wildfire Protection Plan. It identified areas facing the greatest wildfire risk, including Katy, Waller, Cypress Fairbanks, Spring and The Woodlands.

Each community is threatened, in part, because they rank “high” for intermixing homes and commercial structures with forests and other wildland vegetation that can become fuel for fires.

“More and more, we have bedroom communities moving into the woods and brush for the scenic beauty. They often abut large areas of woods,” said Brad Smith, Texas Forest Service spokesman.

This urbanization of areas that were historically farm, ranch or woodlands is putting increasing numbers of homeowners at risk, the protection plan warned.

[…]

A key factor in fighting any fire is access to water. But the protection plan noted that a pressing problem for developments in once-rural areas can be limited water supplies.

“Most water lines into unincorporated housing areas in the county have insufficient capacity to effectively pressure water hydrants for fire suppression,” the report said, noting it would also be cost prohibitive to upgrade those lines and hydrants.

The report recommends mapping all potential water sources – from stock ponds to creeks – as well as listing GPS coordinates for all hydrants that can supply water that could be trucked to a fire scene.

Here’s the Fire Marshall’s Community Wildfire Protection page, here’s the Executive Summary of the Community Wildfire Protection Plan (CWPP), and here’s the full plan, which is on the CWPP page. Not surprisingly, the areas most at risk are in the farthest north and northwest parts of the county. The Fire Marshall used the Texas Forest Service’s Wildfire Risk Assessment tool, which you can use as well if you want to know what your own personal risk is here. As I am firmly entrenched in the urban core mine is fairly low, but given the concerns last year about Memorial Park going up in flames, I’m not going to get too cocky about that. Take a look and see how you fare.

The science of fire

Great story about how scientists have been figuring out what really happens when a building burns, and why so much arson “evidence” is bunk:

At laboratories throughout the United States—some large enough to contain a three-story house—researchers have been lighting rooms and houses on fire and analyzing the results with the kind of scientific scrutiny that has upended several deeply entrenched misconceptions about how fires behave. The upheaval is more than academic. For generations, arson inspectors have used outmoded theories to help indict and incarcerate many suspects. But as new science is brought to bear on old cases, it is becoming clear that over the past several decades, dozens, perhaps hundreds, of people have been convicted of arson based on scant research and misguided beliefs. Many of those people are still in jail, hoping that someone will take up their cause.

“A lot of bad science has been applied to arson investigation,” says John Lentini, a renowned fire expert who has given exculpatory testimony in at least 40 arson cases since 2000. His most recent case, now under review, involves a Massachusetts man convicted of arson by Molotov cocktail, even though not a single glass fragment from the supposed bottle bomb was found at the scene.

“I shudder to think how many wrongful convictions there are,” says Richard Roby, president and technical director of Combustion Science and Engineering, a fire-
protection engineering firm based in Columbia, Maryland. Roby has testified for several men charged with arson. One, named Michael Ledford, could not have been 
at the scene when the fire that killed his son was allegedly set, according to Roby’s calculations, yet he is now serving a 50-year sentence. “It’s amazing to think how long it takes for basic science to be accepted,” Roby says. “I lose sleep over this every week.”

The good news is that genuine science is starting to be used by fire investigators. The bad news is that it’s a slow process, and there is still much resistance from the old guard and certain political quarters, as we have clearly seen in Texas, though perhaps the closing of the Willingham case, which included an agreement from the Fire Marshall to review old cases where bunk science might have played a role in getting a conviction, will help change that. They’ll have their choice of cases to investigate, as the unfortunate consequence of all this is that there’s a lot of people who have been convicted of deliberately starting what were surely accidental fires.

In Massachusetts, the percentage of building fires determined to be arson has dropped from more than 15 percent in the early 1990s to less than 2 percent in 2009. In Texas the proportion of fires labeled incendiary has declined by more than half in the last decade. Nationwide, according to the National Fire Prevention Association, the number of intentional structure fires declined by about 51 percent between 1990 and 2007, the most recent year for which statistics are available—from 111,900 incidents to 54,700.

There aren’t fewer fires, there are fewer fires being incorrectly classified as crimes. Even these shrunken numbers are likely too high, and the trend is of no comfort to those wrongly rotting in jail. It’s a real tragedy.

AG rules Willingham case off limits for Forensic Science Commission

The last shovelful of dirt is thrown.

The Texas Forensic Science Commission’s investigation of the science used to convict Cameron Todd Willingham — executed in 2004 for an arson that killed his three children — may be at an end after the state’s top attorney Friday ruled that the panel cannot consider evidence in cases older than 2005.

Attorney General Greg Abbott’s ruling is the latest development in the years-long controversy over the commission’s handling of the high-profile case. Advocates on both sides of the issue claimed the ruling as a victory, though it does narrow the scope of what the commission is allowed to investigate.

The commission’s former chairman, Williamson County District Attorney John Bradley, said the decision vindicated his argument that the commission did not have jurisdiction to investigate evidence in cases that occurred before lawmakers created the panel in 2005.

“We should be spending much more time focusing upon these modern forensic science issues,” said Bradley, who requested the ruling in January. Lawmakers did not confirm Bradley’s appointment this year, and so his term ended with the legislative session. “This AG opinion will correct the course of the Forensic Science Commission.”

Bradley had asked Abbott to rule on three issues: the broadness of the term “forensic analysis”; whether the Willingham case was in the commission’s jurisdiction; and if the commission could only investigate work done at labs accredited by the Department of Public Safety.

In his ruling, Abbott wrote that while the commission may investigate incidents that occurred before its creation in 2005, the law prevents it from considering evidence that was gathered or tested before that date. The commission’s authority also is limited only to DPS-accredited labs, Abbott wrote. And, the commission may not investigate fields of forensic science that are specifically excluded in the state’s code of criminal procedures.

Bradley said the ruling should close the commission’s investigation of the Willingham case, because it involved a fire that happened in 1991. “I think much of this involved distractions created by outside entities that had a different agenda, trying to read into this something that wasn’t there,” he said.

Yes, John Bradley successfully completed his mission to ensure that no official review of the Willingham case ever takes place. You’d think that given the extreme confidence that he and his patron Rick Perry have publicly professed about Willingham’s guilt that they would welcome any review, as it would only serve to prove them correct. I guess bravado has its limits. It really is amazing how much effort was expended to keep eyes and hands off of this case. You don’t have to know anything more about the case to wonder just what it is they’re so afraid of.

Those that have pushed for the Forensic Science Commission to keep doing the work it was created to do will keep pushing for it.

Stephen Saloom, policy director for the Innocence Project, said that although Abbott’s ruling limits the action the commission may take, it should not end the work on the Willingham case and others. He said the Fire Marshal’s office continued to use questionable arson investigative techniques after 2005, and the ruling makes clear that the commission has jurisdiction over those cases. And, Saloom said, the ruling doesn’t absolve others in the criminal justice system from their duty to investigate old cases in which questionable science was used.

“The AG opinion is absolutely without effect on the rest of the criminal justice system’s legal, moral and ethical responsibility make sure justice be done in all past arson cases,” he said.

State Sen. Rodney Ellis, D-Houston, is chairman of the Innocence Project and helped write the 2005 law that created the Forensic Science Commission. He said the ruling should not stop the Willingham investigation or prevent the commission from issuing a ruling that the Fire Marshall was negligent when it did not inform prosecutors and courts that it had used flawed science.

“They had that ‘duty to correct’ prior to 2005, when the Forensic Science Commission legislation took effect, and after 2005, and they have never done so,” he said. “They should inform the criminal justice system of their mistakes quickly, and I would encourage the Forensic Science Commission to make such a recommendation to ensure justice is served in Texas.”

It remains the case that ensuring that law enforcement agencies today are using valid forensic methods is the top priority. But there’s still a lot of people sitting in jail today that were convicted on bogus arson evidence. We owe them something that this opinion makes them much less likely to receive. Sen. Ellis’ full statement is beneath the fold.

(more…)

The end of the Willingham case for the Forensic Science Commission

Dave Mann reads the Willingham report from the Forensic Science Commission so you don’t have to.

The commission’s nearly 50-page report—the product of a high-profile, frequently stalled investigation—is an odd mix. It documents at length the flawed state of fire investigation in Texas and details in general terms the kinds of outdated evidence that led to Willingham’s 1992 conviction for starting the house fire that killed his three daughters and eventually led to his 2004 execution. In that sense, it confirms the opinions of nine national experts who have examined the case and found no evidence of arson.

The report also makes 17 recommendations on how to improve the level of fire investigation in Texas. And, most importantly, it urges the Texas Fire Marshal’s Office to reexamine older arson cases for similar flaws.

Yet for all its documentation of general problems with arson evidence, the report rarely connects these flaws directly to the Willingham case. In fact, the report sidesteps two of the central questions: Were the original fire investigators on the Willingham case negligent and did the Fire Marshal’s office have a duty to inform the governor or the courts prior to Willingham’s 2004 execution that the evidence in the case was no longer reliable?

[…]

So what do we make of this schizophrenic document?

Willingham’s relatives—his stepmother Eugenia Willingham and his cousin Patricia Cox—pronounced themselves satisfied with the commission’s work. “What this commission has done will have a significant impact on the justice system,” Cox said.

Stephen Saloom with the Innocence Project was clearly frustrated that the commission couldn’t address the negligence issue. But, he added, given that limitation, the commission did commendable work during the past two days. “It’s a good report,” Saloom said. “It makes clear that the old forms of arson evidence are not reliable and need to be corrected…and that the old cases that may have been tainted by this evidence have an opportunity for review. This gives a chance for justice for all those past cases where people may have been wrongly convicted of arson.”

Indeed, among the report’s 17 recommendations is much-needed reform. The commission recommends improving training and certifications for fire investigators and ensuring that training curriculum include fire science and fire dynamics. It recommends the Fire Marshal’s office conduct internal audits and create a peer review team to monitor the quality of its fire investigations. The report also recommends requiring lawyers and judges take continuing education classes focused specifically on forensic science.

Perhaps most importantly, it urges the Fire Marshal’s office to reexamine older cases. As I’ve written before, many of the 750 people current in Texas prisons on arson convictions may be innocent. The state desperately needs an official inquiry into older arson cases.

Unfortunately, the FSC doesn’t have the power to do more than urge the Fire Marshall to act, and there’s still an inquiry into the AG’s office to determine just what authority the Commission has. That will be John Bradley’s parting shot. This probably was the best report we could have gotten given Bradley’s endless meddling. Maybe with the Willingham matter more or less settled and no election looming, Rick Perry will appoint someone less egregious as Bradley’s replacement. Yeah, yeah, I know.

Draft Willingham report is out

Postcards:

A draft report issued today by the Texas Forensic Science Commission on the evidence used to convict and execute Cameron Todd Willingham focuses on training and education initiatives for fire investigators and makes several suggestions for continued improvement for investigations.

The report, as expected, takes pains to say that it does not comment on Willingham’s guilt or innocence. It does not reach conclusions about the performance of arson investigators. It acknowledges that fire science has improved since the 1991 fire that killed Willingham’s three young daughters and lays out some of the modern scientific understanding of fire behavior on questionable findings in the Willingham investigation.

The commission will discuss the draft report at its two-day meeting in Austin, which begins today at 1 p.m. and continues tomorrow morning.

Commission members have insisted that their investigation would focus on the science and say nothing about the guilt or innocence of Willingham.

The report is linked above; I have not had a chance to wade through it yet. I am disappointed that it did not draw any conclusions about the performance of the arson investigators from that fire, though I suppose one couldn’t do that without also addressing the innocence question. If the end result of all this is that the state Fire Marshall continues to defend that investigation with impunity, then this all really was a waste of time, and John Bradley can walk away with a clean victory for his lord and master Rick Perry. We can never improve if we’re not willing to admit when we make a mistake. We’ll see how it goes when the Commission takes this up. The Trib has more.

The Willingham arson investigator

The Statesman has a good story about former Deputy State Fire Marshal Manuel Vasquez, whose testimony helped convict Cameron Todd Willingham, and the status of the Willingham case with the Forensic Science Commission.

Spurred by John Bradley, the Williamson County prosecutor who was appointed chairman by Gov. Rick Perry midway through the case, the commission has asked Attorney General Greg Abbott to determine whether it has jurisdiction to investigate the Willingham case. Legal briefs were due last week, and Abbott’s opinion is due by July 30.

If Abbott gives the green light, the commission’s next step will be to draft a final report on its Willingham findings. Commission members declined to discuss the report or its contents, but judging by their earlier statements, there are two essential questions:

• Was the arson finding based on valid science?

• Were fire officials negligent in their investigation and trial testimony?

In the spotlight is Vasquez, who had 30 years of firefighting experience, including 17 years as an investigator, when he told jurors that he had discovered numerous signs of arson at Willingham’s house.

But thanks to improved scientific understanding of fire behavior, it is now known that Vasquez was wrong about several key points.

Those two questions have always been what the Forensic Science Commission is all about. We can’t fix problems that we don’t acknowledge that we have. By now it’s clear that the answer to question 1 is no, not at all. The answer to 2 is less clear, but I for one would feel better about absolving the State Fire Marshall of any blame for their ruling at the time if they would quit defending the original ruling of arson and admit that they know more now than they did then. How can we have any faith they’re not still doing it wrong if they won’t own up to it?

Anyway. If the Bradley nomination truly is dead, then he will be off the Commission by the time AG Abbott makes his ruling. If so, and if Abbott doesn’t continue the hatchet job for Bradley, we may finally be able to put this matter to rest. It never should have taken this long, but better late than never.

Forensic Science Commission finally hears Willingham testimony

If you were hoping the state of Texas would be open to changing how arson investigations should be done, then the hearing was a disappointment. Still, some good things happened.

Speaking at a special meeting of the Texas Forensic Science Commission, which is examining the science used to convict Willingham, the invited experts had little positive to say about an investigation they characterized as incomplete and investigators they criticized for improperly jumping to unjustified conclusions.

“Everything documented post-fire was just as consistent with an accidental fire as an intentional fire,” said John DeHaan , author of “Kirk’s Fire Investigation,” a widely used textbook. “You have really no basis for concluding this was arson.”

But the commission also heard from an official in the state fire marshal’s office who stood by the arson conclusion, saying it was reached after a thorough, professional investigation and supported by the evidence.

Assistant State Fire Marshal Ed Salazar admitted that in the years since 1991, science has determined that some of the evidence used to convict Willingham does not necessarily point to arson. But, he said, tests that found a combustible liquid under the front door and the presence of certain burn patterns support such a finding.

“They followed the protocols; they followed the practices that were available and being used at the time,” Salazar said. “I believe the conclusions they reached can be scientifically sound.”

The DMN and Chron have more, as does Dave Mann:

Fire Marshal officials appeared before the Texas Forensic Science Commission at a hearing in downtown Austin to publicly answer questions for the first time about their handling of the Willingham case. Assistant Fire Marshal Ed Salazar told the commissioners today that his office stands behind the Willingham investigation and its conclusions.

In the past 15 years, scientific experiments have proved false many of the old assumptions that fire investigators relied on, including many in the Willingham case. But no matter. Salazar said if this case were being probed today, his office might reach similar findings. That’s a scary thought.

[…]

As Salazar presented his evidence and contended that the slides still supported a finding of arson, it became clear that the field of fire investigation hadn’t come quite as far as we thought. His presentation relied on outdated notions, what some fire scientists have taken to calling “old wives tales.”

For instance, Salazar showed photos of burn patterns on the floor of the Willingham house that were labeled “pour patterns.” Investigators alleged this is where Willingham poured an accelerant to start the blaze. Salazar contended that even under today’s standards, pour patterns can be potential evidence of arson.

In reality, scientists now know that after a fire goes to flashover stage, which this fire did, investigators can glean very little information from the burn patterns on the floor. That’s because during flashover, the fire will scorch the floor. So after flashover, burns on the floor tell you nothing about how the fire started.

Salazar also showed photos of burned holes in the floor. This is another “old wives tale.” Salazar claimed that deep burning on the floor could indicate the presence of an accelerant. (In fact, the opposite is true, as DeHaan later explained in his rebuttal testimony. Repeated scientific testing has shown that gasoline and other accelerants burn off quickly, making it “very difficult, if not impossible, for the fire to burn through the floor,” DeHaan said. Typically, only a fire that goes to flashover can burn long enough to consume the floor. So, the deep burning on the floor couldn’t have been caused by an accelerant, but was simply the byporduct of the fire going to flashover.)

Undeterred, Salazar plowed ahead. He said Vasquez had followed the scientific method and drawn proper conclusions. “[The finding of arson] is a judgment call ultimately coming down to opinions.” The fire scientists might assert that fire investigators relied on their opinions for too long rather than verifiable scientific fact.

But everyone would probably agree with what Salazar said next: “There is an underlying tension between the scientific community and the people doing the down and dirty work.”

Reading this, I can only hope I’m never called to serve on a jury in an arson case, because I’d have to tell the judge that I would be unable to vote for conviction because I have no faith in the state’s ability to determine whether or not arson was actually the cause. Before the Willingham case distracted everybody, the purpose of the Forensic Science Commission was to evaluate the methods being used in (among other things) arson cases. If nothing else, it is now crystal clear that the state of Texas does not believe in using science when investigating suspicious fires. If the Forensic Science Commission does not make strong recommendations for how to fix this, then everything it has done will have been a waste of time and effort. Given the number of people currently sitting in jail because of questionable arson convictions, that would be a bigger tragedy than the Willingham case. Grits, who also attended, provides a detailed writeup as well.