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New Report Shows that Cameron Todd Willingham, Executed in Texas in 2004, Was Innocent

[Print Version]

‘There can no longer be any doubt that an innocent person has been executed. The question now turns to how we can stop it from happening again,’ Innocence Project Co-Director Barry Scheck says

Contact: Eric Ferrero; eferrero@innocenceproject.org; 212-364-5346

(NEW YORK; August 31, 2009) – An exhaustive new investigative report shows that Cameron Todd Willingham, who was executed in Texas in 2004, was innocent. The report comes three years after the Innocence Project released analysis from some of the nation’s leading forensic experts who found that the central evidence against Willingham was not valid. The Innocence Project also obtained public records showing that Texas officials ignored this evidence in the days leading up to Willingham’s execution.

Willingham was convicted of arson murder in 1992 and was executed in February 2004.  His three young children died at a fire in the family’s Corsicana, Texas, home. At Willingham’s trial, forensic experts testified that evidence showed the fire was intentionally set. A jailhouse informant also testified against Willingham, and other circumstantial evidence was used against him.

A 16,000-word report in the September 7 issue of the New Yorker deconstructs every facet of the case, finding that none of the evidence against Willingham was valid. Prior to the New Yorker’s investigative report, by David Grann, the forensic science had been debunked as completely erroneous (including in a 2004 investigative report in the Chicago Tribune), but the other evidence was never examined closely.

“The New Yorker’s investigation lays out this case in its totality and leads to the inescapable conclusion that Willingham was innocent. There can no longer be any doubt that an innocent person has been executed,” said Innocence Project Co-Director Barry Scheck. “The question now turns to how we can stop it from happening again.”

“As long as our system of justice makes mistakes – including the ultimate mistake – we cannot continue executing people,” Scheck said. “This case also highlights serious problems with forensic science in this country. The vast majority of forensic scientists are honest, capable, hard-working professionals, but we aren’t giving them the tools they need to do the job. Congress needs to create a National Institute of Forensic Science that can spark research to determine the accuracy of forensic disciplines and set standards for how our system of justice uses science.”

In May 2006, the Innocence Project (which is affiliated with Cardozo School of Law) formally submitted the Willingham case to the Texas Forensic Science Commission, along with information about another arson case and a request that the panel order a review of arson convictions across the state. In the other arson case, Ernest Willis was convicted of an unrelated arson murder and sentenced to death in 1987, and he served 17 years in prison before he was exonerated.  The May 2006 filing included a 48-page report from an independent five-member panel of some of the nation’s leading arson investigators, who reviewed more than 1,000 pages of evidence, testimony and official documents in the two cases.

In the report, the arson experts – with a combined 138 years of experience in the field – say that neither of the fires which Willingham and Willis were convicted of setting were arson.  The expert report notes that the 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. 

In 2007, the Texas Forensic Science Commission announced that it had accepted the Innocence Project’s complaint and would launch an investigation. The commission contracted with Craig Beyler, a widely respected arson expert, to conduct an independent review of the evidence. Last week, Beyler filed his report with the commission, finding that the forensic analysis in Willingham’s case was wrong. The commission announced that it is reviewing Beyler’s report and will review other evidence before issuing its conclusion next year.

“The Forensic Science Commission is still looking at this case and the broader issue of arson convictions statewide. Members of the commission are clearly taking this very seriously, carefully and thoughtfully, and they should have the space to do their work,” Scheck said. “The Forensic Science Commission is not going to determine whether an innocent man was executed. The New Yorker has already done that. The commission will determine what went wrong with the forensic analysis, how widespread the problem is and how we can be sure similar analysis is more reliable in the future.”

Read the full article in the September 7 issue of the New Yorker
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Download the report commissioned by the Innocence Project and submitted to the Texas Forensic Science Commission. (PDF)

Read background on people sentenced to death but exonerated through DNA testing before they were executed.

Visit the Just Science Coalition website for more on efforts to improve the reliability of forensic science.