On Friday, the Texas Forensic Science Commission made some real progress in its review of Cameron Todd Willingham’s arson conviction. The Associated Press reported that the commission recommended more education and training for fire investigators and implementing procedures to review old cases.
Willingham was executed in Texas in 2004 for allegedly setting a fire that killed his three young daughters 13 years earlier. He always claimed his innocence, and the arson investigation used to convict him was questioned by a leading expert before Willingham was executed. Since 2004, many additional experts have said that the testimony of the original fire investigator was based on faulty arson science. Although the commission approved a first draft report with 16 recommendations for fire investigators, prosecutors and defense attorneys and lawmakers, it still hasn’t said whether arson investigators were negligent in Willingham’s case.
The state commission can’t exonerate Willingham or reopen his case but determines whether forensic science in such cases was sound. The eight-member panel won’t make a ruling on negligence or professional misconduct by the fire’s initial investigators until it gets word from the attorney general, a decision not likely until July. John Bradley, a suburban Austin district attorney and the commission chairman appointed by Gov. Rick Perry in 2009, had requested the legal opinion. After courts rejected appeals in Willingham’s case, Perry refused to stop Willingham’s execution.
“In general, I’m satisfied,” said Stephen Saloom, policy director for the Innocence Project, which first raised questions about the case. “They were constrained by the AG’s opinion and have had to overcome the chairman’s relentless efforts to keep a lot of issues down. In the areas they’re permitted to address, they’ve made some significant progress and deserve credit for that.”
“They’ve gotten much more specific,” he said. “It responds to the allegations as much as possible. This gives a chance for all those past cases.”