Willingham report released By Chuck Lindell | Thursday, April 14, 2011, 12:09 PM
A draft report issued today by the Texas Forensic Science Commission on the evidence used to convict and execute Cameron Todd Willingham focuses on training and education initiatives for fire investigators and makes several suggestions for continued improvement for investigations.
The report, as expected, takes pains to say that it does not comment on Willingham’s guilt or innocence. It does not reach conclusions about the performance of arson investigators. It acknowledges that fire science has improved since the 1991 fire that killed Willingham’s three young daughters and lays out some of the modern scientific understanding of fire behavior on questionable findings in the Willingham investigation.
The commission will discuss the draft report at its two-day meeting in Austin, which begins today at 1 p.m. and continues tomorrow morning.
Commission members have insisted that their investigation would focus on the science and say nothing about the guilt or innocence of Willingham.
Even so, the inquiry has become a rallying point for anti-death penalty groups who argue that Texas executed an innocent man. The Innocence Project, a New York legal advocacy group that filed the Willingham complaint with the commission, also has proclaimed Willingham’s innocence and criticized Gov. Rick Perry for failing to stop the execution despite receiving a last-minute report questioning the arson science used in the case.
Such statements have rankled John Bradley, the commission chairman appointed by Perry in 2009. Bradley, a prosecutor, believes Willingham was guilty of murder, and he has been particularly critical of Innocence Project co-founder Barry Scheck for “manipulating” the commission’s work to suit death penalty opponents.
Bradley, also chairman of the four-member investigative subcommittee for the Willingham case, has noted that a jailhouse informant testified that Willingham confessed to the crime. Willingham’s version of events during the fire also changed several times, Bradley noted.
Bradley has insisted that he is able to separate his opinion that Willingham was a “guilty monster” from his evaluation of the forensic science involved. But Bradley’s opinions galvanized Democratic opposition to his pending nomination in the state Senate, dooming his chances of approval when two Republican senators joined the anti-Bradley movement.
Fearing a losing vote that would end Bradley’s time on the commission, Senate Republicans have delayed action on the nomination so he can continue serving as chairman. Without Senate approval, Bradley must step down when the legislative session ends May 30.
In January, the commission heard from two nationally known fire experts who concluded that no evidence supported a finding of arson in the Willingham fire. The cause of the fire, they said, should have been listed as undetermined.
The experts, John DeHaan and Craig Beyler, also criticized the Willingham investigation as incomplete and said fire investigators improperly jumped to unjustified conclusions of arson.
The State Fire Marshal’s Office, however, stood by its investigator and the arson finding. Read news coverage of that meeting here.
In March, I wrote a story examining the arson evidence used to convict Willingham and compared it to the modern understanding of fire behavior. The story concluded that today’s fire investigators are warned against basing arson findings on the indicators used to convict Willingham.
The Willingham report is last on the agenda and will likely be discussed when the commission’s meeting resumes at 9:30 a.m. Friday. The meeting is at 1711 San Jacinto Blvd. in downtown Austin.
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