The Texas Forensic Science Commission and the Willingham Case

The Texas Forensic Science Commission was formed in 2005 by the state legislature and investigates complaints of forensic negligence or misconduct in Texas criminal cases.

In 2006, the Innocence Project formally submitted the Cameron Todd Willingham case to the TFSC, asking the empowered state entity to launch a full investigation. Along with the Willingham case, the Innocence Project submitted information about another arson case in Texas where identical evidence was used to send another man to death row. In that case, Ernest Willis was exonerated and freed from prison because the forensic evidence was not valid.

In 2008, the Texas Forensic Science Commission agreed to investigate the case. The panel’s review has been interrupted several times over the last two years, however, and continues today.

The commission hired renowned arson expert Craig Beyler to review all of the evidence in the case. In August 2009, Beyler submitted his report to the commission, finding that the forensic analysis used to convict Willingham was wrong - and that experts who testified at Willingham’s trial should have known it was wrong at the time.

An investigative report in the September 7, 2009, issue of the New Yorker deconstructs every facet of the state’s case against Willingham. The 16,000-word article by David Grann shows that all of the evidence used against Willingham was invalid, including the forensic analysis, the informant’s testimony, other witness testimony and additional circumstantial evidence.

Members of the Texas Forensic Science Commission said in 2009 that they intended to hear testimony from Beyler in October 2009 and produce a report on the Willingham case in early 2010. A hearing scheduled for October 3, 2009, was abruptly cancelled, however, when Gov. Rick Perry announced October 1 that he was replacing three members of the commission whose terms had expired. As of October 7, 2009, the commission’s review of the Willingham case was on hold, according to new chairman John Bradley, the Williamson County District Attorney.

On October 22, 2010, a group of more than 400 people from 120 towns across Texas sent a letter to Bradley urging him to ensure that the Forensic Science Commission continues its review of the arson evidence in the case. Among those signing the letter were 15 Texans who were wrongfully convicted and later exonerated through DNA testing.

On November 10, 2010, at a special meeting of the Texas State Senate Criminal Justice Committe, representatives questioned on the status of the Forensic Science Commission’s work and plans for continuing ongoing investigations. Watch Innocence Project Co-Director Barry Scheck’s comments at a press conference following the hearing.

On April 15, 2011, the Texas Forensic Science Commission issued its report on the convictions of Cameron Todd Willingham and Ernest Willis, recommending more education and training for fire investigators and implementing procedures to review old cases. In July 2011, Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott issued an opinion in response to questions from the commission about jurisdiction and authority. The opinion prohibits the commission from investigating “specific items of evidence that were tested or offered into evidence prior to” September 1, 2005. Innocence Project Co-Director Barry Scheck responded that the “the reasoning of the opinion is wrong and contrary to the clear intention of the legislature when it formed the Commission.”

Visit the TFSC website for information on upcoming meetings.


Key Documents:

2011: TFSC Report on Willingham / Willis Cases

2010: Innocence Project Letter to to the Texas Forensic Science Commission

2009: Report of Craig Beyler to the Texas Forensic Science Commission

2008: Innocence Project Letter to Texas Forensic Science Commission

2006: Innocence Project Filing to Texas Forensic Science Commission

1992: Complete trial transcript

TFSC Memos and Letters

September 2011

Letter to TFSC Commissioners from Innocence Project Policy Director Stephen Saloom - September 6, 2011

July 2011

Texas Attorney General Opinion on Investigative Authority of TFSC

January 2011

Letter to TFSC Commissioners from Innocence Project Policy Director Stephen Saloom - January 19, 2011

October 2010

Letter to TFSC Commissioners from Innocence Project Policy Director Stephen Saloom - October 13, 2010

September 2010

TFSC draft report on Willingham investigation - September 10, 2010

Letter to TFSC commissioners from John Lentini - September 10, 2010

August 2010

Letter to TFSC commissioners from Richard Schulte, Schulte & Associates - August 25, 2010

Letter to TFSC commissioners from Thomas L. Bohan, Director, MTC Forensics - August 22, 2010

Letter to TFSC commissioners from the Innocence Project - August 20, 2010

Letter to TFSC commissioners from Texas State Fire Marshal Paul Maldonado - August 20, 2010

Letter to TFSC commissioners from the City of Corsicana - August 20, 2010

Letter to TFSC commissioners from Mark Goodson - August 20, 2010

Letter to TFSC commissioners from Craig Beyler - August 19, 2010

Letter to TFSC commissioners from Fire-Ex Forensics, Inc. - August 19, 2010

Letter to TFSC commissioners from Thomas D. Wood, Sr. Investigator, Houston Fire Department - August 19, 2010

Letter to TFSC commissioners from Paul Giannelli - August 15, 2010

Letter to TFSC commissioners from Former Chairman Samuel E. Bassett - August 10, 2010

September 2009 - July 2010

Reponse to June 14 TFSC Memorandum from Texas State Represenatatiives Leo Burnam, Eddie Rodridguez, Stephen Frost and Barbara Mallory Caraway - July 22, 2010

Response to June 14 TFSC Memorandum from Texas Senator Juan “Chuy” Hinojosa - July 22, 2010

Memorandum summarizing Texas Open Meetings Act research with regards to the TFSC from Weil, Gotshal & Manges LLP - July 20, 2010

Letter to TFSC commissioners from Innocence Project Policy Director Stephen Saloom - July 20, 2010

Response to June 14 TFSC Memorandum by Former Chairman Samuel E. Bassett - July 19, 2010

Response to June 14 TFSC Memorandum by Stephen Saloom, Innocence Project Policy Director - July 20, 2010

Memorandum on the Jurisdiction of the Forensic Science Commission by Chairman John Bradley - June 14, 2010

Letter to TFSC from more than 400 people across Texas, including 15 exonerees — October 22, 2009

Letter to TFSC commissioners from Mark Goodson, September 23, 2009

Additional Resources:

Expert reports, media coverage and more Willingham resources

Texas Forensic Science Commission website