News 09.15.10

Texas Forensic Science Commission Set to Discuss Willingham Arson Case

Innocence Project will again broadcast entire meeting live online

Willingham family members will be in attendance Innocence Project’s Co-Director Barry Scheck and Policy Director Stephen Saloom will be available for comments immediately following the meeting

On Friday, September 17, at 9:30 a.m., the Texas Forensic Science Commission will convene to consider the disposition of the Cameron Todd Willingham arson allegation and Ernest Willis case.

Willingham was executed in 2004 for allegedly setting a fire that killed his children. Before and after his execution, leading experts found that there was no scientific basis for deeming the fire an act of arson. Willis was convicted of arson based on the same kind of forensic analysis, but he was fully exonerated. These cases raise important questions about the integrity of forensic analysis in arson investigations statewide.

At the last meeting of the Texas Forensic Science Commission, many Commissioners expressed their belief that “flawed science” was used to convict and execute Willingham.  The only issue remaining was whether or not the state was negligent in its handling of the case.  However on Aug. 20, the Texas Fire Marshal’s Office submitted a response to the Commission claiming that the testimony of the original investigator was credible. This response doesn’t address the concerns raised by the national experts and has been thoroughly rebutted by expert John Lentini. 

As requested by the Commission, the Innocence Project also submitted a letter to the TFSC commissioners on August 20 that underscored the role of outdated forensics in Willingham’s conviction and urged them to fully and publicly investigate allegations of professional negligence.

After nearly a year delay of the investigation, there needs to be a Commission-wide public discussion on the case if the board still intends to present its final disposition for a vote at a meeting in October.

The Texas Forensic Science Commission was created by the Texas Legislature in 2005 for the purpose of investigating all allegations of negligence or misconduct that would significantly affect the results of forensic analysis. 

The Innocence Project formally asked the commission to investigate the Willingham case in 2006. That request specifically asked the commission to determine whether there was professional negligence or misconduct affecting the integrity of forensic results by virtue of the Texas Fire Marshal’s office failure to notify prosecutors and the courts that arson investigators’ past findings of arson (based on investigative methods other than National Fire Protection Agency Directive 921) were scientifically unreliable and, importantly, to determine whether other arson convictions in Texas may merit review because of the use of those unreliable forensic analyses.

For full background on the Willingham case,

click here


For the full meeting agenda for Friday,

click here


You can view live video from the meeting on the Innocence Project’s website here


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