Report says Texas executed innocent man in arson case

Group of experts faults `bad science' by prosecution witnesses in '91 case

May 03, 2006|By HENRY WEINSTEIN | HENRY WEINSTEIN,LOS ANGELES TIMES

Four leading arson experts presented a report to Texas officials yesterday saying that the state executed an innocent man based on an erroneous interpretation of fire evidence.

The arson experts reviewed the record of the murder trial of Cameron Willingham, convicted and sentenced to death for setting a fire in his Corsicana, Texas, home that led to the deaths of his three children in December 1991.

The group concluded Willingham was convicted on the basis of "bad science." 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," said the Arson Review Committee, a panel commissioned by the Innocence Project of Cardozo Law School in New York. Moreover, the experts said the evidence relied on by prosecution witnesses was the same type that would routinely be found after accidental fires.

No member of the panel was involved with Willingham's case, and they were not paid for their work, they said.

Willingham was executed by lethal injection in February 2004, maintaining his innocence to the end.

John J. Lentini, the former chairman of the forensic science committee of the National Institute of Arson Investigators who led the review panel, said in an interview that he was convinced Texas had executed an innocent man. "Arson is the only crime for which you can be executed based on the opinion of a man with a high school education," said Lentini, referring to the fact that many arson investigators are qualified by judges as "experts" though lacking scientific training.

Lentini, manager of fire investigations at Applied Technical Services, a testing and consulting firm based in Marietta, Ga., which works primarily for manufacturers and insurance companies, presented the group's findings at a news conference in Austin, Texas, with attorney Barry Scheck, Innocence Project co-founder.

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

Over the past decade, the Innocence Project, using DNA evidence, has played a key role in securing freedom for dozens of individuals in the U.S. who had been convicted of murder and rape but were later exonerated.

"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 commission should open a broad probe of arson cases.

Lentini said he hoped that the 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, said Lentini. Daniel L. Churchward, of Fort Wayne, Ind., who is the chairman of the National Fire Protection Association technical committee on fire investigations, agreed.

In the Willingham case, expert witnesses used by the prosecution testified that the only way the fire could have started in Willingham's home was through the use of a liquid accelerant, such as gasoline, that had been left on the floor. Prosecution witnesses said they were able to reach this conclusion because of the pattern of burn marks on the floor.

"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," Churchward said. "That is not right. That has been proved wrong time and again."

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

Their report urged heightened review of fire probes.

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

Willingham's case stemmed from a Dec. 23, 1991, fire. According to testimony, his wife left the house to shop for Christmas gifts for their three children: Amber, a 2-year-old girl, and Karmon and Kameron, 1-year old twins.

Willingham said that he awoke after hearing Amber cry for help. He said the house was filled with smoke. He said he was unable to rescue the children and fled the house. They perished.

Henry Weinstein writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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