Late last year we examined the possible flawed science that was the basis of conviction of Cameron Todd Willingham, a father of three who was alone with his children when his home mysteriously caught fire and burned all three of his children to death. Willingham exited the home without his children.
Using science available at the time to an undertrained Fire Marshall, it was determined that the fire was arson and Willingham was sentenced to death. He was executed in February of 2004.
Prior to his execution, it was brought to Governor Perry’s attention that the science may have been flawed and it was recommended he stay the execution as they determine whether or not a new trial based on better science be held. From our earlier piece on the events that unfolded at this point:
According to the Houston Chronicle, three days later – on the day of the scheduled execution, Governor Rick Perry received, by fax, the entire report at 4:52pm. At a few minutes after 5:00, the Governor sent word that he would not intervene. The death of Cameron Todd Willingham occurred that evening, at 6:20 p.m.
This is what it all comes down to. Rick Perry had the 64-page report, the evidence, in his hand, that seriously called into question the validity of the investigation that led to the conviction of Todd Willingham. Apparently, it took him 8 minutes to read all 64 pages, decide that the experts who had refuted the voo-doo fire investigation knew less than he, and get word to the executioner that it was A-OK to proceed with this death sentence.
Later, the Washington Examiner reported that the Governor dismantled the commission that was going to review the evidence in this case to determine whether or not the science was bad and whether the state acted hastily in executing this man in light of the evidence given to the jury at the original trial.
Perry, who has said the execution was appropriate, replaced the head of the Texas Forensic Science Commission and two of its eight other board members. The upheaval on the commission came just 48 hours before it was to consider a report critical of the arson finding leading to Cameron Todd Willingham’s execution for the deaths of his three daughters in a 1991 fire.
Baltimore-based arson expert Craig Beyler, who was hired by the commission, concluded the arson finding was scientifically unsupported and investigators at the scene had “poor understandings of fire science.” His report has bolstered arguments from advocacy groups that Willingham was innocent and wrongly executed.
Perry told The Associated Press the terms of the dismissed board members were expiring and replacing them “was pretty standard business as usual.” But several board members have served more than one term and had their appointments renewed.
I concluded at the time that, although there was no way we could determine guilt or innocence by reading these reports, there was more than enough doubt to at least stay the execution and consider a new trial. If the state executes someone, they need to be SURE. A new trial would have cost some money and time and bad press for the state if the conviction was not upheld, but it would have cost less than a life.
So – the reason we’re here – the update.
The Houston Chronicle reported this week that the commission finally released the report about the arson investigation. They concluded that while the investigators didn’t err in their investigation, the science used was faulty. The science did not meet standards adopted in 1992 for arson investigation. Surprised?
If the Governor’s intent was to make sure that no one could prove the state executed an innocent man, it worked. We’ll just never know. I’m not saying the guy is innocent – by all accounts he was a pretty bad guy – but I’m just saying we’ll never know whether he was wrongly executed or not. Would another trial have really been so bad?