A 1991 house fire in Corsicana, Texas, that sent three infant girls to their deaths and their father to the execution chamber was incorrectly ruled an arson, and may have in fact been accidental, says a report from a top fire scientist.
The report from renowned fire expert Craig Beyler, requested by the Texas Forensic Science Commission, casts doubt on death penalty supporters’ insistence that there are sufficient safeguards to prevent the innocent from being put to death. It will also likely raise new calls for the abolition of the death penalty.
The state of Texas executed Cameron Todd Willingham by lethal injection on February 17, 2004, for the deaths of his daughters Amber, 2, and twins Karmon and Kameron, aged one. Willingham protested his innocence to the end.
If the Texas Forensic Science Commission accepts Beyler’s findings, “it could lead to the first-ever declaration by an official state body that an inmate was wrongly executed,” reports the Chicago Tribune.
The Tribune first brought national attention to Willingham’s case in 2004, 10 months after the 36-year-old went to his execution. In an investigative article, the paper reported that the forensics analysts it had hired had found that “Willingham was prosecuted and convicted based primarily on arson theories that have since been repudiated by scientific advances. According to four fire experts consulted by the Tribune, the original investigation was flawed and it is even possible the fire was accidental.”
“There’s nothing to suggest to any reasonable arson investigator that this was an arson fire,” arson expert Gerald Hurst told the Tribune. “It was just a fire.”
But Beyler’s report goes even further, saying that the prosecution “relied on bad science, unproven theories and personal bias” in its pursuit of Willingham. The Austin American-Statesman reports:
Beyler’s report, requested by the Texas Forensic Science Commission, listed more than a dozen instances of improper analysis and mistaken conclusions provided by two fire officials during Willingham’s capital murder trial.
Most damaging was testimony that burn patterns on the home’s floors proved that an accelerant was used to start three different fast-burning fires that doomed the children — a conclusion not supported by the facts or by fundamental scientific analysis, Beyler wrote.
Beyler’s report singles out the investigative work of Manuel Vasquez of the State Fire Marshal’s Office, who told jurors that “most of the 1,200 to 1,500 fires he had investigated were arsons — a statistic that ‘far exceeds any rational estimate’ and reflects his ‘predisposition to find arson in his cases,’” the Statesman quotes Beyler’s report.
The testimony Vasquez provided was “hardly consistent with a scientific mind-set and is more characteristic of mystics or psychics,” Beyler wrote, according to the Houston Chronicle.
The Statesman provides a list of forensic testimony in the case, as challenged by Beyler:
• Melted aluminum: Vasquez testified that wood burns at 800 degrees, meaning an accelerant must have been used to reach the 1,200 degrees necessary to melt an aluminum threshold.
On the contrary, Beyler said, accelerant fires are no hotter than wood fires, and both can reach 2,000 degrees.
• Floor patterns: Vasquez and Fogg testified that “puddle configurations” and burn patterns on the floor could only have been caused by burning liquids.
In reality, Beyler said, such patterns are typical in rooms — like those in the Willingham home — that were fully involved in a fire.
• Crazed glass: Vasquez determined that a severely cracked porch window indicated a fast, hot fire due to accelerants.
“In fact it is much more likely that any crazing resulted from the application of water to hot glass during firefighting,” Beyler wrote.
Vasquez will not be able to respond to the charges of malfeasance against him, as he died in the 1990s.
“The only other evidence of significance against Willingham was another inmate who testified that Willingham had confessed to him,” reports the Houston Chronicle. “Jailhouse snitches are viewed with skepticism in the justice system, so much so that some jurisdictions have restrictions against their use.”
As the Tribune noted in 2004, “before Willingham died by lethal injection … Texas judges and Gov. Rick Perry turned aside a report from a prominent fire scientist questioning the conviction.”
That has led many commentators to question whether there was a political motive behind the decision to send Willingham to his death.
“The errors in the forensics were discovered with plenty of time before the execution date, but Governor Rick Perry declined to intervene … and — to further his own career as a ‘tough on crime’ politician — allowed an innocent man to die by lethal injection,” opines JR at the Daily Kos blog.
“I am an innocent man convicted of a crime I did not commit,” Cameron Willingham said as he was being strapped into his deathbed. “I have been persecuted for 12 years for something I did not do.”
But then Willingham added, to his ex-wife: “I hope you rot in hell, bitch.”
It’s a side of Willingham that likely made it hard for jurors to sympathize with the defendant. The Clark County Prosecutor’s Web site points out that Willingham had “a history of violence. He [had] been convicted of numerous felonies and misdemeanors, both as an adult and as a juvenile, and attempts at various forms of rehabilitation have proven unsuccessful.”
That his neighbors testified against him didn’t help, either.
“Neighbors of Willingham testified that as the house began smoldering, Willingham was ‘crouched down’ in the front yard, and despite the neighbors’ pleas, refused to go into the house in any attempt to rescue the children,” the Clark County Prosecutor’s Office states.
“Willingham’s neighbors testified that when the fire ‘blew out’ the windows, Willingham ‘hollered about his car’ and ran to move it away from the fire to avoid its being damaged.”
According to the Tribune, one juror “said she would have found Willingham guilty even without the arson finding solely because he did not try to save his children.”