Panel Requests More Experts in Arson Case

By JEFF CARLTON
|  Friday, Sep 17, 2010  |  Updated 10:20 PM CDT
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Panel declines to clear fire investigators of wrongdoing in a case that led to the conviction and execution of a <a title=Texas man in 2004." />

Ken Kalthoff, NBCDFW.com

Panel declines to clear fire investigators of wrongdoing in a case that led to the conviction and execution of a Texas man in 2004.

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A Texas panel on Friday declined to clear fire investigators of professional misconduct for determining that arson caused a 1991 fire that killed three girls and led to the conviction and execution of their father.

Instead, the Texas Forensic Science Commission planned to meet in November to question fire experts about the professional standards used by arson investigators in the early 1990s. The commissioners are withholding judgment on whether investigators were wrong to say arson caused the blaze.

That decision came over the fierce objections of the commission chairman, John Bradley, who was appointed last year by Gov. Rick Perry. Bradley urged his colleagues to determine the investigators acted appropriately, and at one point he raised his voice and accused the commissioners of "shirking their duties."

Bradley pushed his colleagues to reach a consensus. He argued that either there was insufficient evidence to determine professional misconduct or there was no misconduct, and therefore investigators met the standards of their day.

But the panel disagreed, saying there appeared to be evidence that the Corsicana Fire Department and the state fire marshal's office were not following the standards from the early 1990s.

The commission has nine members, seven of whom are forensics experts.

"Chairman Bradley is trying to resist the finding by this group of scientists that the science used at the time is insupportable and false," said Barry Scheck, co-founder of the Innocence Project, a New York legal center specializing in wrongful convictions. "Every expert that has looked at this said the science then was wrong."

A jury in Corsicana, south of Dallas, convicted Cameron Todd Willingham of capital murder in 1992. He was executed in 2004, when Perry was governor.

Texas is the nation's busiest death penalty state.

Testimony from fire investigators was the primary evidence against Willingham. They said they found pour patterns and puddling on the floor, signs someone had poured a liquid accelerant throughout Willingham's home. The defense didn't present a fire expert of its own.

Willingham's conviction was upheld nine times.

But the investigators' conclusions have been strongly challenged by several fire experts. Craig Beyler, chairman of the International Association of Fire Safety Science, wrote last year in a report for the commission that the investigators didn't follow standards in place at the time and did not have enough evidence to make an arson finding.

The opinions of a state fire official in the case were "nothing more than a collection of personal beliefs that have nothing to do with science-based fire investigation," Beyler wrote. The deputy state fire marshal appeared "wholly without any realistic understanding of fires and how fire injuries are created."

The idea of an open meeting in which commissioners directly question fire experts is exactly what was supposed to happen a year ago, when the panel was set to hear testimony from Beyler.

But days after Beyler's report was released -- and days before the commission was to question him about it -- the governor removed three members of the commission, saying their terms were up. Perry replaced the commissioner, Austin defense attorney Sam Bassett, with Bradley, the Williamson County district attorney.

Bradley then canceled the upcoming meeting. The re-examination of Willingham's case has since slowed as the commission questioned whether it had jurisdiction to proceed and focused on policies and procedures in how it handles future cases.

"It is heartening to see the scientists on the Commission are taking this investigation seriously and requiring that more be done," Bassett said Friday.

Judy Cavnar, Willingham's cousin, said she attended his execution and spoke to him 55 minutes before he died.

"He emphatically said, 'I did not set that fire. I did not kill my children,"' she said.

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