By Stephen Saloom, Innocence Project Policy Director
Last week the Corsicana Sun reported that the Texas County and District Attorney Association (TCDAA) had awarded its annual Lone Star Award to Navarro County District Attorney Lowell Thompson
for his work preventing a Texas Court of Inquiry into the case of Cameron Todd Willingham
, who was convicted in 1992 and executed in 2004 for setting a fire that killed his three children, despite strong evidence that the fire was accidental. The TCDAA states that the Lone Star Award “..identifies and commends Texas prosecutors who have distinguished themselves and the profession through exemplary work in cases of public interest.”
When I read that I thought: “Could it be that stopping an inquiry into a possible wrongful conviction was the act through which a Texas prosecutor most distinguished himself and the profession in the public interest last year?”
Cameron Todd Willingham always claimed his innocence, and the arson investigation used to convict him was questioned by leading experts before Willingham was executed in 2004. Since then, even more evidence in the case has led to the inescapable conclusion that Willingham did not set the fire for which he was executed.
To this day, the state’s criminal justice system has failed to recognize that the evidence in his case was scientifically invalid and unreliable. The Texas Forensic Science Commission was about to directly explore that question in 2009, until former TCDAA President John Bradley was abruptly installed as Chairman of the Commission at the critical point in their proceedings. He spent his entire tenure seeking to stop or stall the commission’s investigation of the case. The Texas Fire Marshal refuses to acknowledge that the evidence relied upon was – and remains – scientifically invalid and unreliable.
In 2010, the Innocence Project sought a rare Court of Inquiry proceeding because it was one of the only vehicles left to enable the Texas legal system to realize the mistake that every credible fire expert had identified. All other opportunities for official government recognition had failed.
It says volumes about the TCDAA that stopping a legal inquiry into a possible wrongful execution was considered the most exemplary act of professionalism in the public interest by a Texas prosecutor last year.
Our legal system relies on prosecutors to enable justice in criminal cases. Theirs is an incredibly difficult job, requiring hard work, an open mind and sound judgment while considering some of the most terrible acts in our society. This demands that prosecutors perform distinguished acts every day: seeking convictions in serious cases, ensuring that only appropriate charges are pursued and dismissing cases where they feel that the evidence does not support a guilty finding.
Reasonable people can disagree about whether or not a Court of Inquiry is the proper venue to explore the questions of a wrongful conviction – even if a previous Court of Inquiry resulted in the posthumous exoneration of Timothy Cole
, and the legislative creation of a Timothy Cole Advisory Panel to prevent wrongful convictions.
By recognizing Thompson for the stopping of the Willingham Court of Inquiry proceeding, TCDAA demeaned the work of all Texas prosecutors. Surely more important – and more difficult – work was done by many Texas prosecutors – including, likely, Thompson himself – in the last year.