Associated Press

Panel to probe findings that led to execution

By JUAN A. LOZANO Associated Press Writer
Aug. 15, 2008

HOUSTON — A state panel voted Friday to investigate whether a man executed in 2004 for setting a fire that killed his three daughters actually started the blaze.

The Texas Forensic Science Commission agreed to review the original findings that Cameron Todd Willingham set a fire at his family's Corsicana home two days before Christmas in 1991. Its decision came after the Innocence Project, a legal group that specializes in overturning wrongful convictions, requested the case be reviewed.

Investigators with the Texas State Fire Marshal's Office ruled the blaze was arson, started by an accelerant. But the Innocence Project says experts in a 2006 report it commissioned concluded the fire was not intentionally set.

"Our role is limited to determining whether or not the State Fire Marshal's Office committed misconduct or professional negligence in their analysis or their testimony," said Samuel Bassett, the chairman of the commission.

The commission gave no timetable for how long the investigation could take to complete.

This is the first investigation to be conducted by the commission, created by the state Legislature in 2005 to look into allegations of forensic misconduct.

Barry Scheck, co-director of the New York-based Innocence Project, called the commission's action a "very big development."

"The question is in how many cases has there been wrong scientific testimony given and how much of a difference did that make in those cases," he said.

Jerry Hagins, a spokesman for the Texas Department of Insurance, which the fire marshal's office is a part of, said the agency had not been immediately informed of the commission's decision.

"We are willing to help and cooperate in any way we can," he said.

At Willingham's trial, a fire marshal testified the accelerant, possibly lighter fluid, was placed in a way to impede any rescue efforts.

At his trial, neighbors said Willingham, the lone survivor of the blaze, was outdoors even before flames engulfed the house and was worried about his car catching fire. Prosecutors contended he just wanted to get rid of his children: 2-year-old Amber and 1-year-old twins Karmon and Kameron.

Willingham did not testify in his own defense but long contended — even in the moments before his execution — that he was innocent.

Willingham suggested a lantern lamp dumped fluid when a shelf collapsed inside the house and caught fire, or his oldest daughter accidentally set off the blaze or someone else showed up to kill him and his kids.

In addition to investigating Willingham's case, the commission also agreed to look into the case of Ernest Ray Willis, who was convicted in 1987 for a West Texas house fire that killed two women. He spent 17 years on death row before being freed after a federal judge ruled authorities concealed evidence and needlessly drugged him during his trial.

The Innocence Project's 2006 report, by five nationally known fire investigators, also concluded the fatal fire that Willis had been convicted of starting was not arson.

The group's experts said the indicators investigators used to conclude that both fires were arson have since been proven to be scientifically invalid.

"All the assumptions they were making were without any scientific merit," Scheck said.

Bassett, an Austin attorney, said the commission's probe will be complicated.

He said the panel would look at whether investigators' testimony was consistent with the science at the time, and whether new science later on should have caused them to question their original testimony.

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