A powerful piece by David Grann in The New Yorker magazine last week meticulously makes the case that, without question, when Cameron Todd Willingham was executed in Texas, it was for a crime he not only did not commit, but which never happened. Mr. Willingham was convicted in 1992 of deliberately setting fire to his home to kill his 3 young daughters, and was sentenced to death. In 2004, a month before his execution, Mr. Willingham’s attorneys presented Governor Rick Perry and the Texas Pardons Board with a detailed report by Dr. Gerald Hurst, a leading arson investigator. Dr. Hurst’s report called into serious question the assumptions made by the fire marshal who testified at Mr. Willingham’s trial: that the tragic fire was, in fact, arson and that Mr. Willingham is the one who deliberately set the fire. Grann writes that Dr. Hurst concluded that “based on the evidence, he had little doubt that it was an accidental fire—one caused most likely by the space heater or faulty electrical wiring.” Despite having this report, which concluded that Cameron Todd Willingham was actually innocent, Governor Perry and the Board of Pardons did nothing. By unanimous decision, the Board of Pardons denied his appeal Cameron Todd Willingham was executed on February 17, 2004.
Nearly a year after his death, Texas established a government commission to review cases where allegations of mistaken forensic scientific testimony had been raised. Willingham’s is among the first cases being examined. The commission hired Dr. Craig Beyler, another nationally known and widely respected arson scientist. Calling Dr. Beyler’s report “scathing”, Grann reports that Beyler concluded that investigators in the Willingham case “had no scientific basis for claiming that the fire was arson, ignored evidence that contradicted their theory, had no comprehension of flashover and fire dynamics, relied on discredited folklore, and failed to eliminate potential accidental or alternative causes of the fire.” Further, Beyler said the fire marshal’s approached denied “rational reasoning” and violated “not only the standards of today but even of the time period.”
The report has been submitted to the Texas Forensic Science Commission, which will have a final report on the Willingham case early next year. If Texas does, in fact, admit that the fire marshal testified falsely, Texas will then become the first state to officially acknowledge that an innocent person has been wrongfully executed. The New York Times published thoughtful essays on the Willingham case as an editorial and in a column by Bob Herbert. There are at least 4 other cases being scrutinized in Texas for similar problems with arson conclusions.