By Stephen Saloom, Innocence Project Policy Director
Following last week’s meetings of the Texas Forensic Science Commission, the state Fire Marshal’s office has agreed to review past arson investigations to determine if convictions were obtained using bad or outdated forensics. This is a good development, but without Commission oversight of that process it is destined to fall short.
Five years ago, the Innocence Project formally submitted the Cameron Todd Willingham arson case to the Commission, asking them to launch a full investigation into the science used to convict Willingham, which ultimately led to his execution. This same evidence may have been used to wrongfully convict dozens, if not hundreds of others, and the Innocence Project is demanding a review of such cases.
The Texas Attorney General recently issued an opinion limiting the scope of Commission jurisdiction, stating that it cannot review specific evidence used in cases from prior to September 1, 2005. Willingham was convicted of starting the fire that killed his young children in 1992. On Friday, commissioners postponed a vote on an addendum to the panel’s April report on the Willingham case. The addendum, in its current form, would affirm and strengthen aspects of the Commission’s original report, but also decline to investigate any further because of the Attorney General’s opinion regarding the Commission’s jurisdiction. The Innocence Project is pressing the Commission to recognize that it retains jurisdiction over the central claim in the Willingham investigation, which is focused on the negligence of the State Fire Marshal’s Office with regard to arson evidence, and should investigate that matter in addition to the findings it has already issued.
This is particularly important given that the Texas Fire Marshal stands by the discredited arson evidence used to convict Mr. Willingham, a position that the Commission’s initial report found “untenable.” Given the Fire Marshal’s regard for the evidence in the Willingham case, the Innocence Project has asked how the Commission can assume faith in the arson evidence for which the Fire Marshal has statutory responsibility. In short, serious questions of justice and forensic evidence will remain unanswered should the Commission decline to investigate further.
Read more about on these developments from the Austin American-Statesman and the Texas Tribune.
Thanks to Willingham Inquiry, Old Cases Getting New Look
Forensic Panel Calls for Review of Past Arson Case
Cameron Todd Willingham resource page
for more background on this case and the work of the TFSC.