No fault found in fatal arson inquiry
State commissioners say flawed casework ending in execution involved no negligence or misconduct
HOUSTON — A majority of the Texas Forensic Science Commission has tentatively concluded that there was no professional negligence or misconduct by arson investigators whose flawed work in a fatal Corsicana fire contributed to the conviction and 2004 execution of Cameron Todd Willingham.
It would be wrong to punish investigators for following commonly held beliefs about fire conditions that are known, in hindsight, to be invalid indicators of arson, said John Bradley, chairman of a four-member panel reviewing Willingham’s case.
“We should hold people accountable based on standards that existed when they were working on these things,” Bradley said during the commission’s quarterly meeting Friday.
All four members of the investigative panel agreed with the preliminary finding, which was reached during two meetings that were closed to the public, said Dr. Sarah Kerrigan, a forensic toxicologist and director of the Sam Houston State University crime lab in Huntsville.
“The panel unanimously felt the science was flawed by today’s stan-
Continued from A1 dards, but the question for us was, was there professional negligence or misconduct?” Kerrigan said, adding that scientific arson standards — though adopted nationally in 1992, the year Willingham was convicted — had not filtered down to the front-line investigators in Texas.
The other three members of the commission had little to add to the discussion.
But with the commission appearing to head toward a vote directing the investigative panel to write a final report on its Willingham findings, lawyer Barry Scheck interrupted, starting the first of two shouting matches with Bradley.
“I must protest that,” said Scheck, co-founder of the Innocence Project in New York, which filed the original commission complaint about the Willingham case.
“I am going to ask you to please sit down and be quiet or leave,” Bradley said.
But Scheck pressed on, saying the commission’s inquiry was heading down the wrong path.
Instead of focusing on the fire investigators, Scheck implored commissioners to analyze the state fire marshal’s office, which he said adopted scientifically based standards for determining when a fire is arson yet failed to reinvestigate hundreds of arson convictions obtained from investigations now known to be flawed.
“Was it the fire marshal’s office that engaged in professional neglect or misconduct?” Scheck asked. “Does the (agency) have a duty to correct any past representations that are wrong, that are scientifically invalid?”
In the end, commissioners voted to give Scheck and other interested parties three weeks to submit objections to the proposed finding.
In addition, the panel will ask fire experts to submit information on what Texas arson investigators knew — or should have known — when the Willingham fire was investigated in 1991 and when he was prosecuted in 1992.
The investigative panel will then spend about three weeks compiling the information and writing a final report about the Willingham fire, which will be presented to the full commission during an as-yet unscheduled special meeting, probably in September.
Willingham’s three young girls were killed in a December 1991 fire in their Corsicana home. Willingham, who escaped the blaze, was arrested a month later after investigators found evidence that the fire was intentionally set.
His case has drawn international attention — and speculation that Texas might have executed an innocent man — after modern fire experts, including Austin chemist Gerald Hurst, deter- mined the arson finding was based on unreliable, unscientific conclusions.
The commission was created by the Texas Legislature in 2005 to promote professional standards for the use of forensic science in the courtroom and to investigate allegations of scientific negligence or misconduct.
It began investigating the Willingham matter in 2008 and hired scientist Craig Beyler, who found that fire investigators — one with the Corsicana Fire Department, the other with the state fire marshal’s office — relied on unproven theories and personal bias in their arson rulings.
But days before Beyler was to present his findings to the commission last year, Gov. Rick Perry replaced the panel’s chairman with Bradley, who is also district attorney of Williamson County. Perry eventually replaced his other three commission appointees as well. Beyler’s presentation was canceled.
Critics accused Perry of trying to bury the Willingham investigation or at least delay its findings until after election season. The governor has denied the accusation.
Willingham’s mother, Eugenia Willingham, flew in from her home in Ardmore, Okla., to attend the meeting with about 30 other spectators and reporters crammed into a small hotel meeting room. Two documentary film crews recorded the proceedings.
“We came down here not knowing what to expect, that maybe they’d find a way turn their backs on Todd,” she said. “I have this sick feeling in my stomach like I had at Todd’s trial.”
The panel’s findings on the fire investigators overshadowed an earlier controversy over a seven-page legal analysis stating that the Forensic Science Commission’s jurisdiction was far more limited than originally thought.
The memo, released last week, was largely written by Bradley after consulting with fellow commission member Lance Evans, a Fort Worth defense lawyer, and attorneys with the attorney general’s office and Department of Public Safety.
Concerned that the memo was an attempt to short-circuit the Willingham investigation, several Democratic legislators objected, saying it relied on an overly restrictive interpretation of the law creating the commission.
Bradley denied any ulterior motives: “I have made it clear that we are going to complete the Willingham case.”
Evans, who said that following the memo would lead to an absurd result and hamstring commission investigations, moved that the panel “not adopt” the legal analysis and “continue to review each case as it comes up.”
The motion passed 7-0, with Bradley saying the discussions convinced him that the memo was not ready for adoption.
John Bradley developed a tough-on-crime reputation as Williamson County district attorney before being appointed to lead the Texas Forensic Science Commission.