On December 23, 1991, a fire broke out in one room of the Willingham home, in Texas. Willingham’s then-wife and mother of his children, was not home. Their three daughters were and lost their lives.
Willingham himself was home, tried to save his children, but was forced back by the intensity of the fire. He escaped with minor burn injuries. The investigation that lead to his capital charge and conviction was based on analysis and procedures that were later discredited. Willingham denied from the beginning that he had set the fire.
Appeals failed, clemency was denied, and Willingham was executed on February 17, 2004.
Ever since this case started, people have been wondering whether the fire was arson or accidental. The state of Texas of course stood by the first. The latter was politically unacceptable and therefore never even considered or debated. But some did since forensic arson detection has evolved dramatically over the last years.
The Texas Forensic Science Commission rebelled last Friday against its head commissioner John Bradley, by refusing to accept his draft report that would clear arson investigators of misconduct or negligence in the 1991 fatal fire where flawed science was used to determine the blaze was intentionally set.
Now, commissioners plan to listen to live testimony in November from Texas Fire Marshal officials and specialists in arson investigation. The goal is to answer with certainty one of the most troubling questions raised by Willingham’s case: Did investigators engage in negligence or misconduct in ruling that he deliberately set the fire that killed his three young daughters shortly before Christmas 1991?
The ultimate questions — whether Willingham was erroneously convicted and, thus, wrongly executed — the commission can’t directly answer. It has neither the legal authority nor all the evidence to do so. But, commissioners do have the ability to shine more light on the processes that led to Willingham’s indictment and conviction. And doing so can help improve the justice system and increase the care with which arson investigations are undertaken.
One witness expected at the November meeting is Baltimore fire specialist Craig Beyler, whom the commission had hired to review investigation methods used to build criminal arson cases against Willingham and Ernest Ray Willis, the defendant in an earlier unrelated case that ultimately resulted in an exoneration.
Beyler is the ninth forensic arson specialist to review the case. The other eight came to similar conclusions. The other major piece of evidence against Willingham was the testimony of a jailhouse informant who claimed Willingham confessed to him.
Last fall, after Beyler’s report called into question the procedures and conclusions in Willingham’s case, Gov. Rick Perry shook up the commission, replacing its chairman and several members whose terms had expired. But the governor’s action, which threw a political taint over the nine-member panel and delayed its work on the Willingham review, hasn’t prevented the thorough examination that’s needed.
Let us end this post with Beyler’s conclusion:
“The investigations of the Willis and Willingham fires did not comport with either the modern standard of care expressed by NFPA 921, or the standard of care expressed by fire investigation texts and papers in the period 1980–1992.
The investigators had poor understandings of fire science and failed to acknowledge or apply the contemporaneous understanding of the limitations of fire indicators. Their methodologies did not comport with the scientific method or the process of elimination.
A finding of arson could not be sustained based upon the standard of care expressed by NFPA 921, or the standard of care expressed by fire investigation texts and papers in the period 1980–1992.”
To be continued…
Read more here.