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Panel Says Faulty Arson Evidence Led to Execution

A man was convicted of murdering his three children based on `bad science,' its report says.

May 03, 2006|Henry Weinstein | Times Staff Writer

A man executed by the state of Texas in 2004 was convicted on an erroneous interpretation of fire evidence, according to a report from four leading arson experts.

The experts called the fire evidence presented at the trial of Cameron Willingham for the 1991 murders of his three children in a house fire "bad science" in the report presented to Texas officials Tuesday.

The state's expert witnesses "relied on interpretations of 'indicators' that they were taught constituted evidence of arson. While we have no doubt that these witnesses believed what they were saying, each and every one of the indicators relied upon have since been scientifically proven to be invalid," the Arson Review Committee report states.

Prosecution witnesses testified that the only way the fire in Willingham's Corsicana, Texas, home could have started was with a "liquid accelerant," such as gasoline, that had been left on the floor. The witnesses said they reached this conclusion because of the pattern of burn marks on the floor.

But the report said that presumption was no longer valid.

"The philosophy that was out there for years was if you have fairly deep penetrating char on some floor material and then right next to it unburned floor material of the same type, it had to be caused by burning liquid accelerant," said Daniel Churchward of Fort Wayne, Ind. A panel member who has been investigating fires since 1972 as a sheriff's deputy, firefighter and insurance company investigator, Churchward said: "That has been proved wrong time and again. There are other ways to create those patterns."

John J. Lentini, the former chairman of the forensic science committee of the International Assn. of Arson Investigators, led the review panel and said in an interview that he was convinced that Texas had executed an innocent man.

Lentini presented the group's findings at a news conference in Austin, Texas, with attorney Barry Scheck, co-founder of the Innocence Project at the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law in New York, which commissioned the report. No member of the panel was involved with Willingham's case and they were not paid for their work, they said.

They gave the report to the recently formed Texas Forensic Science Commission, created by the state Legislature last year to deal with problems in criminal investigations revealed in recent years, including mistakes made by police crime labs in Houston and Lubbock.

"I think we now have scientific proof that an innocent person was executed and we have a government agency that is obligated to say so," Scheck said. He said that the Texas commission should open a broad investigation of arson cases, citing statistics showing that Texas has the highest percentage in the country of people imprisoned on arson convictions.

Until now, the Innocence Project has worked almost exclusively on cases where there was DNA evidence. Its work has helped exonerate and secure freedom for dozens of individuals nationwide who had been convicted of murder and rape.

The Innocence Project also is investigating the cases of five individuals in other states -- including one in California -- in prison after convictions on arson charges, Scheck said.

Lentini said he hoped that the Arson Review Committee's report "would raise public awareness of a serious problem in the justice system" with arson investigations.

"I have been on the front lines of fire investigations for 30 years. I used to believe a lot of" things about arson that turned out not to be true, Lentini said.

"Arson is the only crime for which you can be executed based on the opinion of a man with a high school education," Lentini said, referring to the fact that many arson investigators are qualified by judges as "experts" even though they lack scientific training.

Churchward said that arson investigations began to change dramatically in 1992 after the National Fire Protection Assn. adopted new procedures calling for more scientific rigor. Nonetheless, Churchward and Lentini said many fire investigators were resistant to change.

Their report urged heightened review of fire investigations. "To the extent that there are still investigators in Texas and elsewhere who [misinterpret fires], there will continue to be serious miscarriages of justice," the report states.

John Jackson, the lead prosecutor in the case who is now a judge, declined comment, as did officials of the International Assn. of Arson Investigators.

According to testimony at Willingham's trial, his wife left the house to shop for Christmas gifts for their three children -- Amber, a 2-old-girl; and Karmon and Kameron, 1-year-old twins. Willingham said that he awoke after hearing Amber cry for help. The house was filled with smoke, he said, and he was unable to rescue the children and fled the house. They died.

Willingham was executed by lethal injection in February 2004, maintaining his innocence to the end. While strapped on the gurney in the execution chamber, Willingham declared, "I am an innocent man, convicted of a crime I did not commit."

At the time, some arson experts were already raising questions about the trial testimony. Among them was Gerald Hurst, a veteran arson investigator from Austin, Texas, who has a doctorate in chemistry from Cambridge University.

Hurst said he had been contacted by Willingham's family, independently investigated the case and concluded that the fire had been started accidentally. However, reports he wrote at the time did not persuade appellate courts to overturn the conviction or Gov. Rick Perry to stay the execution.

"I hope this report will have a broad impact," Hurst said. "This case is the tip of the iceberg."

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