Improving forensics to end injustice
Cameron Todd Willingham (above left) was convicted in 1992 of setting a fire to his Corsicana, Texas, house in 1991 that killed his three daughters. Four years earlier, Ernest Ray Willis (above right) was sentenced to death for setting a fire that killed two women in Iraan, Texas. Both men claimed that they were innocent of the murders. Similar arson investigations – including “scientific” methods that have been debunked – led to both convictions. But the two cases reached very different conclusions in 2004. Willingham was executed by lethal injection on February 17, 2004. On October 6 of the same year, Willis was freed after a state judge heard new evidence pointing to his innocence and threw out his conviction.
An independent five-member panel including some of the nation’s leading arson experts found in a 2006 report that neither of the fires in these two cases was arson. This report shows that Texas may have executed an innocent man, and demonstrates the immediate need for forensic improvements in the state.
In May 2006, the Innocence Project filed a formal allegation asking the Texas Forensic Science Commission to review the cases of these two men and recommend changes to the state’s forensic system that could prevent wrongful convictions in the future. The group is meeting August 15 to review this request.
Innocence Project Co-Director Barry Scheck urged the Commission to fully investigate the issue. Even at the time of Willingham’s trial, the forensic methods used by prosecution experts to classify the fire as arson were known to be faulty and unreliable. On Friday, August 15, the Commission decided to launch a full investigation.
The expert panel’s report found evidence and forensic analysis in the Willingham and Willis cases “were the same,” and that “each and every one” of the forensic interpretations that state experts made in both men’s trials have been proven scientifically invalid. “While any case of wrongful conviction, acknowledged or not, is worthy of review, the disparity of the outcomes in these two cases warrants a closer inspection,” the report says.
Learn more about inconsistencies in fields like arson investigations, and the need for forensic oversight nationwide:
Chicago Tribune: Man executed on disproved forensics (12/9/04)
In-depth: Read the expert panel’s report (PDF)
Press Release (5/2/06): Innocence Project Submits Two Arson Cases to Texas Commission and Requests System-Wide Review
Fix the System: Forensic Oversight