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September, 2011

Controversy Plagues Search for Truth in Willingham Case

Last month, Barry Scheck, co-director of the Innocence Project  re-raised concerns over the the investigation of evidence used in the conviction and execution of Cameron Willingham.

In Scheck’s August 14 op-ed in the Houston Chronicle, he highlights the conflict between the Forensic Science Commission (FSC) and State Fire Marshall, Paul Maldonado, over the validity of scientific methodology used by the State Fire Marshal’s Office (SFMO).

In its April 2011 report, the FSC found there were significant gaps in the scientific knowledge and method of state arson investigators and recommended that Maldonado’s office “[re-examine] cases when science has evolved to create a material difference.” Despite these concerning conclusions, Maldonado and the SFMO stand by the original methods, findings, and conclusions of the 1991 investigation.

The Commission’s investigation of Willingham’s case has continued to create political turmoil. In 2009, before the Commission was set to release a “scathing report” on the faulty evidence used in the conviction of Willingham, Governor Rick Perry replaced three key members of the investigation committee with new political appointees, including the appointment of John Bradley, “one of the most hard-line prosecutors in the entire state” as chairman. What Governor Perry termed as “normal protocol” indefinitely postponed the FSC’s report that included Maryland fire investigation expert Craig Beyler, who was reportedly set to present evidence that concluded that “arson was not the likely cause of the 1991 fire.”

More recently, through a strict reading of the legislation commissioning the FSC, the Attorney General’s Office of Texas offered an opinion that the FSC’s jurisdiction of investigation only encompassed evidence presented on or after September 1, 2005, thus excluding the evidence used in the conviction of Willingham.

To date, all significant action taken on examining the innocence of Cameron Willingham have been ignored, disregarded, or derailed. With these controversies in mind, the appearance of politics interfering in the search for truth and justice regarding the possible execution of an innocent man is concerning.

With Governor Perry’s bid for the presidency creating front-page news, it is now more imperative than ever for this case to receive the scrutiny it deserves. The controversial methods employed to convict Willingham’s must be fully explored in order to limit the possibility of even more innocent individuals going to death row in Texas. Although the death penalty system will never completely remove the risk of executing an innocent person, every effort should be made to mitigate those risks.

Image Courtesy of Fox News

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