Forensic commission expert points to faulty conclusions in Willingham investigation
By Nolan Hicks, Daily Texan Staff
Published: Monday, July 26, 2010
SAN ANTONIO — Investigators used “flawed science” to determine that the fire that destroyed Cameron Todd Willingham’s mobile home and killed his three children was arson, the Texas Forensic Science Commission concluded Friday.
The arson reports were a key part of Willingham’s murder trial, in which he was convicted of setting the December 1991 fire that killed his children. He was executed in 2004.
“I’m comfortable that not only did [Cameron] Todd Willingham have a fair and open and exhaustive and process, but I think that justice was served in the case,” Gov. Rick Perry said at a Friday press briefing in San Antonio.
The commission, which was created after scandals surfaced at the Houston and Texas Department of Public Safety crime labs, is charged with evaluating the validity of the evidence used during trials. It announced there was insufficient evidence to determine whether the fire investigators were negligent or committed professional misconduct.
“The fire investigators were negligent at the time,” said Stephen Saloom, policy director for the Innocence Project. “Basically, Cameron Todd Willingham was convicted and executed on discredited arson evidence.”
The commission, which can only look at the validity of the evidence and cannot examine the innocence of a defendant, will solicit additional testimony and input as it prepares to write its final report on the subject. The report could be issued as soon as September.
Willingham’s execution has come under intense scrutiny after three separate investigations — conducted by the Chicago Tribune, the Innocence Project and the Texas Forensic Science Commission, the state agency charged with investigating such matters — raised significant questions about the evidence and expert testimony offered during Willingham’s trial.
The commission’s own expert, Dr. Craig Beyler, said there was no way to conclude that arson was the cause of the fire from the available evidence and condemned key testimony provided by State Deputy Fire Marshal Manuel Vasquez, writing that his testimony was “hardly consistent with a scientific mind-set and is more characteristic of mystics or psychics.”
The commission has been mired in political controversy as it has tackled the case. Perry dismissed then-commission Chairman Sam Bassett and two other commission members just two days before Beyler was scheduled to testify before the committee in a hearing to examine the evidence in the Willingham case.
Bassett was replaced by John Bradley, longtime Perry loyalist and Williamson County district attorney, who canceled the 2009 hearing. Since he took over as chairman, there have been frequent complaints from Bassett, Texas legislators and outside experts that Bradley has been dragging out the hearings in an attempt to slow the investigation to death.
“It’s been clear with every move he has made that he doesn’t want to see this investigation go forward,” Saloom said.
Late Thursday, just hours before the commission was set to convene its hearing in Houston, news leaked that its members were going to consider a memorandum that would significantly reduce the scope of the commission’s jurisdiction to examine evidence — in effect, preventing the commission from examining the evidence that led to Willingham’s execution.
While the memo was unsigned, a senior aide to Texas Senate Criminal Justice Committee Chair John Whitmire, D-Houston, said Bradley was certainly the person pushing its adoption. Attempts to contact Bradley were unsuccessful as of press time.
The aide said that despite Bradley’s efforts, when the commission came out of executive session, commission members made a motion not to accept it.
An aide to Sen. Rodney Ellis, D-Houston, was even more blunt, saying that Bradley was the author and the person on the board pushing the memo.
Originally published here