CrimProf Blog

Editor: Kevin Cole
Univ. of San Diego School of Law

Friday, December 10, 2004

Chicago Tribune Investigation Team Uncovers TX Man's Execution was Based on Faulty Forensics

TxmanCameron Todd Willingham declared his innocence one last time before he was executed, having been convicted for starting a fire that killed his three children.  In his final statement he said, "I am an innocent man, convicted of a crime I did not commit...I have been persecuted for 12 years for something I did not do."  Since his execution on February 17, 2004, a Chicago Tribune investigation team uncovered that the arson theories set forth by the prosecution's winning argument have since been disproven by scientific advances. 

The Chicago Tribune reports: "According to four fire experts consulted by the Tribune, the original investigation was flawed and it is even possible the fire was accidental.  Before Willingham died by lethal injection on Feb. 17, Texas judges and Gov. Rick Perry turned aside a report from a prominent fire scientist questioning the conviction.

The author of the report, Gerald Hurst, reviewed additional documents, trial testimony and an hourlong videotape of the aftermath of the fire scene at the Tribune's request last month. Three other fire investigators--private consultants John Lentini and John DeHaan and Louisiana fire chief Kendall Ryland--also examined the materials for the newspaper.

'There's nothing to suggest to any reasonable arson investigator that this was an arson fire,' said Hurst, a Cambridge University-educated chemist who has investigated scores of fires in his career. 'It was just a fire.'"
More... [Mark Godsey]

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My favorite line:

"At the time of the Corsicana fire, we were still testifying to things that aren't accurate today," he said. "They were true then, but they aren't now."

Yes, folks, the laws of physics have changed considerably since 1992.

I am not impressed by the effort of the article to sanitize the incompetence of the "investigators" who misinterpreted the evidence from the fire scene. The fact that NFPA 921, a consensus document on fire science, was not published for a couple more months does not mean that the science was not available - it had not yet been compiled into that document, but it was most certainly available in any number of sources. The authors of NFPA 921 didn't just make stuff up on the fly - they relied upon existing scientific knowledge and data.

NFPA 921, also, was not a magic cure to incompetence by police fire investigators. When an officer "certifies" as a fire investigator by, for example, taking a two week course sponsored by the state police, are we even trying to achieve true competence?

My contempt is fueled by an arson case I once defended - with facts in many ways similar to the Willingham case, save perhaps most notably for the fact that my client was able to get his children out of the house and no "jailhouse informant" magically appeared for trial. But for the extremely gracious contribution of time by Safety Engineering Laboratories, in Warren, Michigan, through Michael Hoffman and Michael Kroll, my client may well have been convicted as the result of truly incompetent "fire investigation". They spent more on exhibits than they received in fees, and I would hate to even count the hours they poured into the case without any further recompense. Like the expert in Willingham, they were shocked by the incompetence of the official investigation, but fortunately for my client their shock came prior to trial.

The article quotes the Willingham expert, Gerald Hurst, as saying "the level of expertise in criminal cases was far below what I was used to seeing in civil cases." That's an awfully polite way of putting it. That, though, is the result of a system which pits police fire "investigators" against defendants who typically can't afford experts of their own, or whose means are so limited they can't afford competent expert assistance. And in the world of criminal defense, that phenomenon is certainly not isolated to arson cases.

Posted by: Aaron | Dec 9, 2004 8:52:02 PM

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