Forensics Show Texas Executed an Innocent Man

We've previously written about Cameron Todd Willingham who was executed in Texas in 2004 for an arson/murder. Evidence was mounting that the fire was not arson, but accidental. See here, here, and here.

Steve Mills of the Chicago Tribune reports today that the forensic report requested by the Texas Forensic Science Commission, which is charged with investigating allegations of forensic error and misconduct, concludes the fire in the Willingham case was accidentally set.

In a withering critique, a nationally known fire scientist has told a state commission on forensics that Texas fire investigators had no basis to rule a deadly house fire was an arson -- a finding that led to the murder conviction and execution of Cameron Todd Willingham.

The finding comes in the first state-sanctioned review of an execution in Texas, home to the country's busiest death chamber. If the commission reaches the same conclusion, it could lead to the first-ever declaration by an official state body that an inmate was wrongly executed.


A Chicago Tribune investigation published in December 2004 reached the same conclusion. Now, having obtained the forensic report prepared by Craig Beyler, of Hughes Associates Inc., Mills writes:

Among Beyler's key findings: that investigators failed to examine all of the electrical outlets and appliances in the Willinghams' house in the small Texas town of Corsicana, did not consider other potential causes for the fire, came to conclusions that contradicted witnesses at the scene, and wrongly concluded Willingham's injuries could not have been caused as he said they were.

The state fire marshal on the case, Beyler concluded in his report, had "limited understanding" of fire science. The fire marshal "seems to be wholly without any realistic understanding of fires and how fire injuries are created," he wrote. The marshal's findings, he added, "are nothing more than a collection of personal beliefs that have nothing to do with science-based fire investigation."

Nine of the country's top scientists have reached the same conclusion in the last five years.

All concluded that the original investigators relied on outdated theories and folklore to justify the determination of arson.

JR at Daily Kos has also been following the case and has this report today.

What's next? The Texas Moratorium Network is renewing its call for a moratorium on Texacutions.

"Texas Moratorium Network has been warning for many years that Texas runs the risk of executing an innocent person because of the pace of executions in Texas and the many flaws in the system that can lead to innocent people being wrongfully convicted. Innocent people have been released from Texas death row in the past, including Ernest Willis.

It is too late to release Todd Willingham because Texas already executed him in 2004 for supposedly setting a fire to murder his three children. Today's news that the fire in the Willingham case was not arson means that Texas has moved another step closer to having to face the unspeakable horror that it has executed an innocent person", said Scott Cobb, president of Texas Moratorium Network.

As the Chicago Tribune opined in 2004:

That's what passes for justice in Texas. The Willingham case undermines the notion that we execute only those we know to be guilty "beyond a reasonable doubt." It should send a shiver across the nation.

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  • Display: Sort:
    Dear God (5.00 / 3) (#2)
    by Militarytracy on Tue Aug 25, 2009 at 04:35:46 PM EST
    First his children died and then we murdered him.

    that's probably one (5.00 / 2) (#10)
    by JamesTX on Tue Aug 25, 2009 at 06:18:28 PM EST
    of the more common miscarriages of justice which people below the wealth line in Texas have to suffer. The family member usually finds the victim, so they are present and first choice of a suspect for cops. Then they simply check background, and if the person is a drug user and has a record, they charge them with the murder. Conviction is slam dunk. I suspect the people in Texas prisons for this type of scenario are in the double digits.

    Probably more (5.00 / 2) (#3)
    by Saul on Tue Aug 25, 2009 at 04:36:46 PM EST
    Since the new technology of DNA is relatively new I have no doubt that many in Texas that have been executed were probably innocent.  

    Texas is the killing fields.  A bad day for prosecutors in Tx is we didn't kill anybody today.

    In no way does capital punishment deter crime.

    Developments in arson science (none / 0) (#14)
    by Peter G on Tue Aug 25, 2009 at 08:08:32 PM EST
    totally debunk prior (pre-1992 or so) beliefs about the behavior of certain kinds of fires.  The characteristics of the post-fire debris and burn patterns that were formerly thought to reveal whether the fire was deliberately set (arson, and thus potentially murder) or accidental are now understood to be found in both sorts of fires.  The tragedy is, that in many of the older arson cases now thought to be miscarriages of justice all the scientists can now say -- unlike in DNA cases -- is that the evidence doesn't prove the defendant was guilty, but they can't say with scientific certainty that the evidence proves him/her to be innocent.  And often the courts then rule that's not enough to meet the standard for overturning an old ("final") conviction.

    Would you say use of (none / 0) (#25)
    by Rojas on Wed Aug 26, 2009 at 08:11:09 AM EST
    the now "debunked" science was confined only to Texas?

    I didn't think so.


    Confined to Texas? No, not at all (none / 0) (#26)
    by Peter G on Wed Aug 26, 2009 at 05:36:57 PM EST
    The reason I know about this issue is that I have such a case in Pennsylvania, where the state courts denied relief all the way up.  (And I know of more than one such PA case.)  My case is presently pending in the U.S. District Court on a habeas corpus petition.  The phony "science" used to convict Willingham was standard conventional wisdom among fire marshals, etc., until around 1992 or so, when real scientists started to do controlled experiments, comparing the ruins of homes burned in wildfires, for example, with those known to have been destroyed by arson.

    A Pa. case (none / 0) (#32)
    by Rojas on Fri Sep 11, 2009 at 11:06:45 AM EST
    In some jurisdictions, the courts have specifically determined that negative corpus evidence is not an adequate basis for arson indictment, for example:  

    Commonwealth v. Moyer, 419 A.2d 717 (Pa. Super. 1980) ("Unsubstantiated suspicion that fire was caused by other than accidental means is insufficient to establish corpus delecti of arson; thus case should not have been submitted to jury)  
    Commonwealth v. Leslie, 227 A2d. 900 (Pa. Sup. Ct. 1967) (Only mere suspicion that fire was caused by other than accidental or natural causes insufficient to submit case to jury)


    Most of these Texacutions (5.00 / 1) (#5)
    by jondee on Tue Aug 25, 2009 at 04:48:28 PM EST
    aren't about justice anyway: they're about corrupt, grandstanding, politicians feeding the festering, retributive "law West 'a the Pecos" fanatsies of people who cant decide whether they'd rather be back in Old Testament or in an episode of Have Gun Will Travel.

    I've suspected for a long time that people like Willingham are the tip of an iceberg of sorts.

    As a former Texas resident (none / 0) (#24)
    by Chuck0 on Wed Aug 26, 2009 at 08:00:53 AM EST
    I would say you are correct. Texas is all about revenge. It's whole justice system is organized that way. There is no rehabilitation or "corrections" in Texas. It's just punishment and revenge.

    Yet another Texas case (5.00 / 2) (#7)
    by caramel on Tue Aug 25, 2009 at 04:55:37 PM EST
    Todd was so badly treated by the guards on death row. They'd wait for him to be out in the rec yard, then they would wreck his cell, tear his daughters' pictures, throw them down the toilets and then tell him his daughters needed him back in his cell because they were drowning... How do you call this?? Torture is not strong enough to describe what he went through. I hope his family will get their asses for all they got and no amount of money will ever make up for he and his family went through. This nightmare must end and executions must stop right now!

    What family? (2.00 / 1) (#22)
    by wagnert in atlanta on Tue Aug 25, 2009 at 09:11:40 PM EST
    His wife divorced him, probably because of the way he behaved the day after the fire, laughing and playing music as he sorted through the debris -- though possibly the fact he beat her when she was pregnant, trying to induce a miscarriage, factored in.  (See the Wikipedia article -- excerpted by diogenes, below.)

    The Tribune story says, "Over the last five years, the Willingham case has been reviewed by nine of the nation's top fire scientists - first for the Tribune, then for the Innocence Project and now for the commission. All concluded that the original investigators relied on outdated theories and folklore to justify the determination of an arson."

    Aside from the willingness of these experts to criticize the "folklore-based" analysis of the Texas fire marshal based on their reading of the reports submitted at trial and a one-hour video of the ruins taken the morning after the fire, one also has to ask oneself why all these experts waited till Willingham was safely dead before they came out of the woodwork with their criticism.  Twelve years elapsed between his conviction and his execution.  He must have had counsel filing appeals (I assume Texas judges don't put on the black hankie and say, "I sentence you to be executed twelve years from now")-- did it never occur to them to challenge the fire marshal's report?

    I think the actual take-away from this case is:  in the event of a fire, whether or not you set it, do not squat on the front lawn until the firemen show up, then demand that they save your car instead of your kids.  This will count in your favor at any subsequent trial and may save your neck.


    The back story (2.00 / 1) (#13)
    by diogenes on Tue Aug 25, 2009 at 08:00:13 PM EST
    From Wikipedia
    .."As firefighters arrived, however, he rushed towards the garage and pushed his car away from the burning building, requesting firefighters do the same rather than put out the fire. After the fire, Willingham showed no emotion at the death of his children and spent the next day sorting through the debris, laughing and playing music. He expressed anger after finding his dartboard burned in the fire. Firefighters and other witnesses found him suspicious of how he reacted during and after the fire.
    Willingham was charged with murder on January 8, 1992. During his trial in August 1992, he was offered a life term in exchange for a guilty plea, which he turned down insisting he was innocent[3].
    After his conviction, he and his wife divorced. She later stated that she believed that Willingham was guilty. Prosecutors alleged this was part of a pattern of behavior intended to rid himself of his children. Willingham had a history of committing crimes, including burglary, grand larceny and car theft. There was also an incident when he beat his pregnant wife over the stomach with a telephone to induce a miscarriage..."

    Sunday School teachers are seldom the "victims" of snitches or bad forensic evidence.  The whole neighborhood seemed to hate this guy...I wonder if it was because he was such a nice guy.

    well diogenes, (5.00 / 1) (#23)
    by cpinva on Wed Aug 26, 2009 at 12:10:46 AM EST
    i read it. and, your point would be? last i checked, being a jerkwad isn't a capital offense. if it were, texas would just have to, as a state, commit mass sepiku.

    i note as well, the total lack of any actual tangible evidence of his guilt cited in that article, just that he didn't act the way someone else thought he should.

    i wouldn't expect any words of concern from the powers that be. they'll insist he was guilty, because a jury found him so.


    I thought similarly (5.00 / 1) (#28)
    by salvador dalai llama on Thu Aug 27, 2009 at 01:38:06 AM EST
    ...initially, when I read the Wikipedia article.  But that's based on some pretty shaky sourcing, including the Clark County prosecutor, who has, let's say, a vested interest in certain versions of the story being promulgated.  If you look at the text of the report by Beyler, a different picture emerges (p. 35 and thereafter).  He was covered with burns, and had to be forcibly restrained from going back into the house.  

    The domestic abuse is apparently true, so he's sure not a saint.  But not a man who deserved to be killed for something that may have been an accident.


    So he wasn't a nice guy (none / 0) (#15)
    by mmc9431 on Tue Aug 25, 2009 at 08:10:25 PM EST
    Being a nice guy or being an S.O.B. shouldn't be a factor in a death penalty case. I can't count the times I've read in the paper that so and so was always such a great guy. How could anyone ever know!

    And how he reacted to the deaths is also hard to judge. People aren't all made from the same cookie cutter. Different people find differents ways to express emotion. Some just don't express it at all.

    Death penalty cases should be based on hard evidence, not personal perceptions.


    Which just goes to show ya (none / 0) (#16)
    by Peter G on Tue Aug 25, 2009 at 08:13:12 PM EST
    that innocent people generally don't tend to wind up on death row unless there is plenty of circumstantial evidence, and sometimes also lying or mistaken witnesses, that wrongly tend to make them look guilty.

    Alfalfaseeds? (none / 0) (#27)
    by ricosuave on Wed Aug 26, 2009 at 09:42:18 PM EST
    If you are going to insult us, do better than that!  This time we deserve it.

    This is a shameful incident, but it is more shameful in that nobody here will bat an eye about it.  And if you think Gov. Perry is going to do anything close to a moratorium while he is in a fierce primary battle and trying to out-fascist Kay Bailey, then you are sadly mistaken.  Gov. Goodhair (Molly Ivins' nickname for Perry) will probably have a few more innocent people executed just to show his conservative bona fides.


    Not really (2.00 / 1) (#29)
    by catmandu on Thu Aug 27, 2009 at 01:34:41 PM EST
    Paid forensic experts are not very reliable.  You will always find one willing to argue whatever side pays.  That is why the jury must weigh ALL the evidence, not just expert testamony.
    This really doesn't prove anything.


    Whichever side pays? (none / 0) (#30)
    by Romberry on Thu Aug 27, 2009 at 10:48:41 PM EST
    When it comes to paying, you ought to give it a try. As in "paying attention" to what you read. The investigation here was paid for by the Texas Forensic Science Commission. They are not an advocate for either side in this case. Their charter is to investigate "charges of forensic error and misconduct."

    No one is alleging misconduct here. What is being alleged (and apparently proven by multiple reviews) is forensic error based on outdated and faulty science and arson folklore. So yes, something was proven here. What was proven was that the forensic arson evidence used to secure a conviction which resulted in the imposition of the death penalty in this case was not so much evidence as fairy tale.

    Would you like to be convicted of a crime and executed based on folklore and fairy tales? One wonders...


    Unfortunatly, it proves we have damn little (none / 0) (#31)
    by Rojas on Fri Aug 28, 2009 at 04:20:14 AM EST
    capacity for learning. 300 years after Salem and  our states experts are swearing to facts that have a similar scientific foundation as a tarot reading. Not only have we killed a man based on testimony sworn to by these state sanctioned voodoo queens, but we allow hundreds or perhaps thousands more to waste away in prisons. It's friggin barbaric. But in the end you ar right of course. We can not really prove they are not witches.

    What's next? (none / 0) (#1)
    by Dadler on Tue Aug 25, 2009 at 04:34:37 PM EST
    Seriously, how do you compensate his family and/or punitively punish the state?  How much is enough to FORCE the state, finally, to change their wretched ways?  Fifty billion dollars?  A hundred?


    I think it's time to find out (none / 0) (#4)
    by ruffian on Tue Aug 25, 2009 at 04:47:23 PM EST
    Do states have any immunity against wrongful death lawsuits in cases like this?

    Absolutely (none / 0) (#8)
    by Steve M on Tue Aug 25, 2009 at 05:14:35 PM EST
    and think about where the state would come up with the $50 billion, for that matter.

    Which reporter will have the fortitude (none / 0) (#6)
    by shoephone on Tue Aug 25, 2009 at 04:48:40 PM EST
    to ask Rick Perry and Kay Bailey Hutchison if, as governor, they would be able to defend the use of the death penalty in any future cases?

    Did defense counsel put an expert witness (none / 0) (#9)
    by oculus on Tue Aug 25, 2009 at 05:16:46 PM EST
    on in the underlying criminal trial?  Was there a federal court habeaus petition?

    Startling (none / 0) (#11)
    by rghojai on Tue Aug 25, 2009 at 06:29:48 PM EST
    Beyond this being disturbing for the obvious reasons, I worked for the newspaper in that town, was out there covering the fire while it was still burning. We knew there were children inside.

    When the fire chief and others came out of the house, the paper's photographer said, "They're all dead."


    "I've seen that look before. They're all dead."

    Stomach-turning as it was for a newly minted reporter, damn. To see this, it's that much worse almost 8 years later.

    Person who was executed was (none / 0) (#12)
    by oculus on Tue Aug 25, 2009 at 06:34:05 PM EST
    not African American.  Just an observation.

    Question (none / 0) (#20)
    by mmc9431 on Tue Aug 25, 2009 at 08:45:39 PM EST
    Has the Texas legislature done anything to address the problems that have come to light over the last two or three years? If they fail to address the issue, what are the options?

    For all his faults, former Gov Ryan at least had the common sense to stop the executions in Illinois when the problems came to light.

    Yes, to be fair, (none / 0) (#21)
    by Peter G on Tue Aug 25, 2009 at 09:10:05 PM EST
    and as reported in the linked story, the newly-released expert report on the Willingham and Willis erroneous arson convictions was produced at the request of the Texas Forensic Sciences Commission, created in 2005 by the state legislature precisely to investigate the rash of wrongful convictions which have come to light.