News 11.09.09

Background: 9 Independent Experts, One Conclusion

Over the last five years, nine of the nation’s leading arson experts have reviewed the evidence in the Willingham case in three separate in-depth reviews, and they all reached the same conclusion: The forensic analysis in the case was wrong. The “indicators” the analysts in Willingham’s case used to determine that the fire was arson are not reliable and not supported by science – the science at the time, as well as current science.

1. Gerald L. Hurst, Ph.D.

, whose report was sent to the governor before Willingham’s execution, has said, “"There's nothing to suggest to any reasonable arson investigator that this was an arson fire…It was just a fire."

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Hurst received his Ph.D. in chemistry from Cambridge and has been investigating fires since 1994. Hurst’s investigation of the Willingham case was submitted to Texas Gov. Rick Perry and other officials before Willingham was executed.

2. Craig L. Beyler, Ph.D.

, concluded that “A finding of arson could not be sustained based upon the standard of care expressed by NFPA 921, or the standard of care expressed by fire investigation texts and papers in the period 1980–1992.”

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Beyler has been involved in fire-related cases since 1987 and was hired by the Texas Forensic Commission in 2005 to investigate the Willingham case.

3-4. John DeHaan, Ph.D. and Kendall Ryland

, who analyzed the evidence in the Willingham case for the Chicago Tribune’s 2004 investigation reported that, “finding evidence of the charcoal lighter fluid was not as ominous as Fogg and Vasquez suggested. They noted that the firefighters found melted remains of a plastic container of lighter fluid on the front porch, and that it was possible firefighters' hoses propelled the fluid under the threshold as they extinguished the fire.

Ryland also said that, in his workshop, he tried to re-create the conditions the original fire investigators described. When he could not, he said, it "made me sick to think this guy was executed based on this investigation. … They executed this guy and they've just got no idea – at least not scientifically– if he set the fire, or if the fire was even intentionally set."

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Ryland is the Chief of the Effie Fire Department based in Center Point, Louisiana, and a former instructor at Louisiana State University. DeHaan has served as an arson criminologist since 1987 and an independent forensic consultant since 1998, testifying in over 90 cases.

5-9. Douglas J. Carpenter, P.E., Daniel L. Churchward, John Lentini, Michael A. McKenzie, Esq. and David Smith,

who authored the

Arson Review Committee Report

said, “Each and every one of the ‘indicators’ listed by Mr. Vasquez means absolutely nothing, and, in fact, is expected in the context of a fire that has achieved full room involvement, as this fire clearly did. Low burning, charred flooring and burning underneath items of furniture are common characteristics of a fully involved fire. They mean nothing with respect to the origin and cause of the fire, and they absolutely do not support any hypothesis that the fire had been accelerated by liquid fuels.”

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Carpenter has been a certified Fire and Explosion Investigator through the National Association of Fire Investigators since 2005 and served as a member of the Arson Review Committee. Churchward has been investigating fires since 1971 and founded Kodiak Enterprises in 1995. Lentini has been a certified fire investigator and chemist since 1978, and he has testified in over 200 cases. McKenzie is a trial attorney licensed to practice law in the State of Georgia. He has coordinated the investigation of fires for clients since 1979 and has tried to verdict approximately 35 alleged arson cases. Smith has been an arson criminologist since 1971 and an independent forensic consultant since 1981. He has served as an expert witness in more than 170 cases.

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