An unprecedented search for wrongful convictions based on bad arson science has already identified one case and is examining others, according to Friday’s meeting of the Texas Forensic Science Commission in Austin.
The Innocence Project of Texas, which is leading the review, set out seeking information from more than 1,000 inmates serving prison time for arson. About 175 replies were whittled down to 30 needing more information.
The focus on reinvestigating arson convictions follows the Commission’s 2011 report on the execution of Cameron Todd Willingham who was convicted of murdering his three young children in a fire that the Commission found was based on faulty, outdated analysis. Willingham was executed in 2004.
The findings, which did not weigh Willingham’s guilt or innocence, included recommendations for better training of fire investigators and a retroactive review of arson convictions — particularly those from before the early 1990s, when scientific studies began shattering many of the myths under which investigators had operated.
For example, “pour patterns” — discolorations or deep burns once believed to be irrefutable proof that an accelerant had been poured on a floor — were found to be common to accidental fires as well.
A panel of fire experts, assembled by new Texas Fire Marshal Chris Connealy, is scheduled to hear details of the first batch of suspect cases in January, reported the
“I can’t tell you today that those myths are not alive in certain areas of this state. The only way we can overcome that is with training,” Connealy said. “Fire investigation is so science-centric, but fire investigators have a limited science background.”