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Texas Commission Rejects “No Negligence” Insists on Expert Testimony

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Last summer, internationally known fire dynamics expert Craig Beyler submitted a scathing report to the Texas Forensic Science Commission reviewing the evidence in the case of Cameron Todd Willingham, who was executed in 2004 for supposedly setting fire to his own home, killing his 3 small children. Mr. Beyler issued a preliminary report calling the trial testimony of the fire marshall who investigated the fire “wive’s tales” and outdated. Although Texas Governor Rick Perry disbanded the Commission before it could consider Mr. Beyler’s report by firing several members, the Commission is now reconstituted and has again taken up Mr. Willingham’s case.

The commission drew criticism last week when it released a draft reportfinding no “negligence or misconduct” by arson investigators in the case. Last Friday, the Commission met to consider the report. New Commission Chairman John Bradley, appointed by Gov. Rick Perry, wanted the Commission to adopt the report in full. However, after a contentious meeting, the Commission instead voted to reconvene in November in order to hear directly from Mr. Beyler and other experts in fire investigation.

The Commission will not consider whether Willingham was innocent or guilty; the aim of the Commission is simply to determine “only the relatively narrow question of whether there was negligence or misconduct on the part of investigators based on standards at the time.”

Asron investigations have come under increased scrutiny throughout the country as techniques used in invetigating fires have changed and evolved with new scientific understandings of how fire behaves. Aside from the Willingham matter, cases in Bost, Oregon, Maryland and Pennsylvania have all been raised as potential miscarriages of justice. In Pennsylvania, Daniel Dougherty is currently awaiting execution for a fire that occurred in his home, killing his children. The Pennsylvania Innocence Project has joined Mr. Doughery’s attorneys in asking Philadelphia District Attorney Seth Williams for an independent review of the case, in light of new developments in fire dynamics and investigations.

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