Arson probe that led to execution assailed
By ALLAN TURNER
Jan. 8, 2011
AUSTIN — Fifteen months after he first was scheduled to testify before the Texas Forensic Science Commission, Baltimore fire expert Craig Beyler on Friday finally got a chance to tell panel members how botched arson investigations helped send a Corsicana man to his execution.
As has become typical in the complex and politically charged case, however, the story did not end there.
Officials from the Texas Fire Marshal's Office, rallying in defense of a now-dead arson investigator, offered counter-testimony, saying that rulings made in 1991 are as valid today as they were then.
The Forensic Science Commission took no action Friday. The panel's next scheduled meeting is Jan. 21 in Austin.
At issue is a Christmas-season 1991 Corsicana house fire in which three young children perished.
Their father, Cameron Todd Willingham, was convicted of capital murder, in part, on the basis of testimony from fire investigators who said the blaze had been intentionally set.
Willingham went to his 2004 execution protesting his innocence.
Beyler reviewed the work of state Deputy Fire Marshal Manuel Vasquez, who died in 1994, at the request of the Forensic Science Commission. In his report, he described the veteran fire sleuth's work as "characteristic of mystics or psychics."
On Friday, Beyler accused Vasquez of failing to eliminate all natural explanations for the fire; failing to interview eyewitnesses or, if he did, ignoring what they said; and interpreting ambiguous evidence to support his conclusion of arson.
Beyler also faulted Vasquez for failing to investigate the possibility that the fire had been set by one of the children or by an intruder.
Rather than systematically explore possible causes such as an electrical short, Corsicana authorities "shoveled out the room and put it out the window," Beyler charged.
Vasquez, he said, not only failed to meet modern investigation standards, he disregarded the more informal standards of 1991 as well.
At best, Beyler said, the cause of the deadly house fire should have been "undetermined."
Science called 'flawed'
California fire expert and textbook author John DeHaan, a 41-year veteran of forensics labs who has set hundreds of fires to scrutinize how they burn, agreed with Beyler.
The science Vasquez employed in his investigation, DeHaan said, was "flawed."
Asked if the way the probe was conducted constituted negligence, he responded, "I would have to say, yes."
The impact of Vasquez's verbal pummeling hardly had dissipated, when Ed Salazar, a lawyer who is second in command of the state fire marshal's office, roared back in the arson investigator's defense.
Salazar defended Vasquez's methodology, insisting that it was identical to provisions of the National Fire Protection Association's 921 rules issued shortly after the Corsicana blaze.
Vasquez talked to eyewitnesses and Corsicana firefighters who had responded to the blaze. The possibility of electrical short-circuits or accidents involving natural was considered and, after investigation, eliminated, Salazar said.
Salazar told commissioners that the mission of the panel had been manipulated by an outside group with an "agenda" — a clear reference to the New York-based Innocence Project, which filed the complaint that resulted in the Willingham review.
The commission's chairman, Williamson County District Attorney John Bradley, also has charged that the group has used the case for anti-death penalty propaganda. The Innocence Project has claimed Willingham was innocent, although determining guilt or innocence is beyond the commission's purview.
Ed Cheever, a state fire investigator, told commissioners he had been misquoted by a Chicago Tribune reporter who wrote that he admitted the standards Vasquez used now may be considered outdated.
Beyler, whose written report has been the target of Bradley's criticism at earlier commission sessions, first was set to address commissioners on Oct. 2, 2009.
That appearance was canceled - three days before it was to take place - when Gov. Rick Perry replaced then-chairman Sam Bassett and several other commissioners. Perry noted that their terms had expired weeks earlier.
Bradley, who was appointed to take Bassett's place, then postponed Beyler's appearance, saying new members needed time to get familiar with the case.
Last summer, he encouraged commission members to reach a decision in the case without hearing live testimony, but commissioners insisted on Friday's session.
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