Panel Will Look Into Willingham Arson Case

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    NEWSLETTERS

    AP
    (AP Photo/Jim McKnight)

    A state forensics panel on Friday assigned four of its members to review the arson case that resulted in the execution of Cameron Todd Willingham, who was convicted of killing his three children.

    In a report prepared last year for the Texas Forensic Science Commission, fire expert Craig Beyler found fault in the investigation that led to Willingham's conviction. But in September, two days before the commission was to discuss the report and question Beyler, Gov. Rick Perry replaced three of its members, including its chairman.

    The new chairman, John Bradley, the Williamson County district attorney, canceled that meeting.

    Without Beyler's finding, prosecutors have admitted it would have been hard to win a death sentence against Willingham.

    The investigative panel was confirmed Friday at a commission meeting in Irving. It will include Bradley, Fort Worth defense attorney Lance Evans, Tarrant County Medical Examiner Nizam Peerwani and Sarah Kerrigan, a forensic toxicologist and director of a crime lab at Sam Houston State University.

    Like Bradley, Evans and Peerwani were appointed to the commission late last year. Kerrigan has been on the commission since 2007.

    Although the Willingham case has been under consideration by the commission since 2006, members of the new investigative panel said the inquiry is far from being completed.

    Kerrigan said little has been done besides soliciting Beyler's report.

    "We've only just begun to put together the pieces we will need to investigate properly," she said.

    During Friday's meeting, Bradley initially said Kerrigan would not be serving on the investigative panel because of personal issues and appointed Evans to replace her. However, at Evans' suggestion, the panel was expanded to four members and Kerrigan agreed to stay on.

    "Obviously, everybody is aware of the public perception regarding this investigation," Evans said, explaining why he believed a four-person panel would be best.

    Willingham, an unemployed mechanic from Corsicana, was executed in 2004 after being convicted of capital murder for setting a 1991 house fire that killed his three daughters.

    Beyler said in his report that the investigation of the fire was so seriously flawed that its conclusion of arson can't be supported. The report said the fire investigation didn't adhere to the standards of care in place at the time, or to current standards.

    The investigative panels are part of a new format for the commission instituted by Bradley. He said the panels, which likely will meet in private, will speed up the investigative process, eliminating the difficulty of bringing all nine commission members together at one time.

    "Right now everybody is focused on one case," Bradley said. "I think in two years you will see how the process has been improved."

    Stephen Saloom, policy director for the national Innocence Project, which filed the initial complaint with the commission regarding Willingham, said he believed the commission was unnecessarily delaying its work.

    "The question is why you need to go into closed session to look at something you have already looked at," he said, referring to the investigative panel.