Texas Commission to Report on Willingham Arson Case

By | January 25, 2011

A Texas commission looking into an arson investigation that led to the execution of the man convicted of starting the fatal fire decided last Friday to move ahead with a report on the case even though its authority is not clear.

The Texas Forensic Science Commission has been looking into the investigation of a 1991 house fire that killed three small children. The children’s father, Cameron Todd Willingham, was convicted of setting the fire and executed in 2004. But the commission said it’s not sure it has authority in cases that started before it was created in 2005 and has asked the Texas Attorney General’s Office for advice on that matter.

The commissioners also have asked whether they have authority over investigators or agencies who may have not been accredited before 2005.

Still, commissioners decided to move ahead with their report without waiting for the attorney general’s response.

‘I want the commission to find a way where we can continue making progress, so things do not come to a standstill,” Commissioner Lance Evans said. ‘I would like us to move forward with all speed.”

State law gives the commission the authority to make recommendations on overall practices and procedures performed by investigators, but it does not have the power to sanction them, Evans said.

The panel’s investigation started in 2006. It became politically charged in September 2009 when Gov. Rick Perry, who appoints its members and refused to stop Willingham’s execution, replaced the chairman and two other commissioners days before they were to hear from a fire expert who later testified that he thought the fire’s cause should have been listed as undetermined. That man, Craig Beyler of Baltimore, Md., finally testified two weeks ago.

In the original investigation, the lead investigator with the State Fire Marshal’s Office ruled the fire was an arson started with an accelerant, and a local investigator concurred. Prosecutors accused Willingham of starting the fire, and he was later convicted and executed.

The assistant director of the fire marshal’s office, who also appeared before the commission two weeks ago, stood by those 1991 findings despite contrary conclusions reached by Beyler and John DeHaan, a consultant from Vallejo, Calif. They described the original investigation as deficient and inadequate.

Death penalty opponents contend such testimony could help make Willingham the first inmate declared wrongly executed since the U.S. Supreme Court allowed capital punishment to resume in the mid-1970s.

However, the commission said previously it found no misconduct or negligence by the original investigators, who were relying on techniques and information available at the time. New fire investigation standards weren’t adopted until 1992, the same year Willingham was convicted.

Willingham, a 36-year-old unemployed mechanic from Corsicana, did not testify at his trial, but he always insisted — even in the moment before his execution — that he was innocent. He believed the Dec. 23, 1991, fire could have been started accidentally by his 2-year-old daughter, Amber, who died along with her 1-year-old twin sisters, Karmon and Kameron.

The commission did not set a timetable for work on the report. Its next meeting is in April.

Commissioner Arthur Eisenberg said the investigation had already experienced many delays and it needed to be wrapped up with a report. But he said that without a decision from the attorney general, ‘we’re still going to be in this muddy water.”

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