Innocence Project Asks Texas to Review Arson Convictions

Post by John Lentini, CFEI
Fire/Arsons Investigation Forum

The American criminal justice system fails sometimes. One price of these failures is the loss of life and livelihood for those unfortunate enough to be wrongfully convicted. The cases of those exonerated by DNA testing have revealed disturbing fissures and trends in our criminal justice system. Some claim that the eventual exoneration of innocents proves that the system works. If that were true, then justice is not being administered by our police, prosecutors, defense lawyers, or our courts. It is being dispensed by law students, journalism students, and a few concerned lawyers, organizations, and citizens.

The Innocence Project at the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law at Yeshiva University, founded by Barry C. Scheck and Peter J. Neufeld in 1992, is a non-profit legal clinic and criminal justice resource center. Throughout its history, the Innocence Project has focused on cases where DNA evidence could be used to prove the actual innocence of wrongly accused and convicted citizens.

Over 175 wrongly convicted citizens have now been exonerated. In many of these cases, the real culprit was identified as a result of the Innocence Project’s work. Thus, the Project has gained credibility with the public, and even with the law enforcement community.

Realizing that if they have identified so many wrongly convicted citizens in cases where DNA could be useful (a small fraction of all criminal cases), Mr. Scheck, Mr. Neufeld and other Innocence Project participants around the country have taken the decision to examine some of those other cases, including arson cases.

The first Innocence Project arson case actually focuses on two Texas cases, those of Ernest Ray Willis and Cameron Todd Willingham. These men were convicted and sentenced to die for setting fatal fires in 1986 and 1991, respectively. The evidence in both cases was remarkably similar. The conclusions of the fire investigators that the fires were incendiary was based on low burns and irregular burn patterns, “indicators” that were once accepted by many, but have now been largely discredited, at least in cases where fires grow to involve the entire room or structure. Other indicators relied upon in these cases included annealed furniture springs, discolored concrete, and crazed glass. In the Willinhgham case, auto-ventilation was described as an indicator of an incendiary fire, and in the Willis case, the amount of damage to the ceiling was said to correlate to the amount of flammable liquid on the floor, even though all of the samples came back negative.

In both cases, the investigators knew they had their man because the suspects gave accounts of the fire that did not comport with the investigator’s interpretation of the indicators.

What caught the attention of the Innocence Project about these two cases was the remarkable difference in the ultimate outcome. After many years of appeals, Mr. Willis was granted a new trial, but realizing the inaccuracy of the incendiary determination, the prosecutor in the Willis case moved to have the charges dismissed. Mr. Willingham’s appeals were not successful, and he was put to death on February 17, 2004.

The Arson Review Committee (ARC) was formed in late January of this year, and over the next two months, the committee members reviewed the reports and trial testimony of the experts in both cases. On May 2, the committee’s report was submitted to the Texas Forensic Science Commission for review, and released to the public. The report, along with supporting documentation, may be viewed by clicking the links below, or at the Innocence Project ’s website. Note: All files are in pdf format.  You will need Adobe Acrobat Reader to view them.

The ARC consists of four fire investigators and a fire litigation attorney, all of whom serve pro bono. The members are John J. Lentini, Daniel L. Churchward, Douglas J. Carpenter, David M. Smith, and Michael A. McKenzie.

Arson Review Committee Report on Willingham and Willis Cases

Timeline of Willingham and Willis Cases

Nationwide Arson Statistics

Other Arson Cases

Truth in Justice