An editorial in today’s Dallas Morning News stressed Texas’ responsibility to review bad arson cases in the wake of a recent meeting by the state fire marshal’s office to explore cases suspected of using junk science to get a conviction.
Texas’ history of reviewing arson convictions began in 2008 with the
Forensic Science Commission’s
investigation of the
Cameron Todd Willingham
and Ernest Willis cases. The Innocence Project had formally submitted these cases for review in 2006. Though Ernest Willis was exonerated and freed from prison because the forensic evidence was not valid, similarly flawed evidence in the Willingham case led to his execution in 2004. The Commission spent several years, including several delays, reviewing Willingham’s case and in 2011 ultimately issued a final report that said prosecutors relied on arson investigators who had a poor understanding of fire science and who learned their craft before there were uniform standards.
The Dallas Morning News
It stressed the “duty to correct” when investigators become aware of advances in fire science that could reverse a criminal conviction.
State Fire Marshal Chris Connealy is taking that seriously and breaking ground with the panel of experts for re-evaluation of old cases. He’s working closely with lawyers from the Innocence Project of Texas, a group sometimes marginalized by law enforcement types.
Breakthroughs come even with odd bedfellows, and that’s progress, too, if justice is the goal.
Nationwide, more than 5,400 people are in prison for arson crimes (in the last year for which government statistics are available, 2002). More than 12 percent of them are in Texas prisons.