If you haven’t heard of Cameron Todd Willingham, you haven’t heard of the one man who is believed to have been executed by the state of Texas when he was actually innocent of the charges against him. Why was the death penalty doled out in a case where the guilt of the defendant was questionable, at best? Because he was convicted using flawed scientific practices and the system did nothing, at the time, to discredit such practices.
Arson investigations involve careful consideration of evidence. The study of how fire burns, what ignites it, where it starts, and similar questions are complicated indeed. But we know more about it now than ever. In the past there was nothing more than an oral tradition of arson investigation, where prior investigators would pass-down pointers to new investigators and the torch of questionable practices would be passed.
Now, the actual science of arson investigations has discredited much of what was seen as fact just 20 years ago, though it was too late for Willingham, who was executed in 1991 for starting the fire that killed his two young children.
The state fire marshal’s office has agreed this week to look into prior arson convictions to determine if shoddy science and bad practices were used. The review was sought by the Texas Forensic Science Commission, the commission which determined the investigators in Willingham’s case relied on “scientifically invalid techniques” to gain a conviction in that case.
Some are very happy about the marshal’s agreement to review the cases. After all, he’s not legally required to do so. “But there is some ethical and moral duty to do that,” said Commission Chairman Nizam Peerwani.
The marshal’s office has agreed to review those cases where investigators from the agency offered testimony at trial. But the sheer number of cases this would involve is remarkable, so they asked for help. The Innocence Project of Texas will be assisting in determining which cases warrant a closer look, though officials from this esteemed organization aren’t getting too excited about the planned review as of yet.
“The fire marshal’s continued faith in the arson evidence in the Willingham cases keeps me from having faith in his judgment,” said Innocence Project’s policy director Stephen Saloom. “And frankly, it should worry the commission.”
Is the marshal just trying to save face and satisfy the commission without really making an effort to uncover flawed cases? The office did stick by all of the flawed science and hastily made assumptions made in the Willingham case, so it’s easy to see why Saloom is being cautious in his optimism.
Arson laws in Texas are extremely serious. The science of analyzing how fires start and spread has come a long way. If you are charged with arson, you want to be confident that you are given a fair shot at beating the charges. Contact our offices today to discuss your case.