Case of Possible Innocence Closed

The Texas Forensic Science Commission recently closed its inquiry into the case of Cameron Todd Willingham, who was convicted for the murder-by-arson deaths of his three young daughters in 1991 and was executed in 2004. The Commission was told by the Texas Attorney General that it did not have jurisdiction to rule on the Willingham case.

In its final report on the case on October 28, the Commission declined to issue any finding regarding allegations of negligence or misconduct by the City of Corsicana or the Texas State Fire Marshal. However, the Commission did acknowledge that unreliable fire science played a role in Willingham’s conviction. At the trial, arson investigators testified that the Willingham house fire was intentionally set using a liquid accelerant. Modern fire experts working for both the Commission and for the New-York based Innocence Project, which has been representing Willingham posthumously, have determined that none of the more than 20 arson indicators identified by those fire investigators in 1991 are reliable evidence of accelerant use. Experts say that the cause of fire should have been “undetermined.”

“The world should now know that the evidence relied upon to convict and execute Cameron Todd Willingham for the fire that killed his daughters was based on scientifically invalid and unreliable evidence,” said Stephen Saloom, policy director for the Innocence Project.  “By any fair estimate, that indicates he was innocent, that he did not set that fire.”

The Commission’s final report also included a commitment from the state fire marshal’s office to review old arson rulings to determine whether other convictions were based on the now-debunked science.  The Innocence Project of Texas will be working with the fire marshal’s office to identify and review old arson cases.

Though the investigation into Willingham’s case was forced to come to a close, hopefully the commission’s acknowledgements about the changes in scientific understanding of fire will help in getting at the truth in other arson cases and will reverse and prevent wrongful convictions.

Steve Mims and Joe Bailey, Jr. made a film about the Willingham case called Incendiary.  It is being released in select theaters throughout the country.  Check out the film’s official site  to learn more.

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