Earlier this week, renowned arson expert Dr. Gerald Hurst died of complications with a prior liver transplant. Dr. Hurst was an instrumental figure in driving the state of Texas to reform its once-outdated arson investigation practices.
In early 2004, Dr. Hurst wrote an in-depth fire investigation report which revealed that the Texas State Fire Marshal Office’s findings around the Cameron Todd Willingham case were based on a flawed investigation and outdated science. In his report, Hurst stated that key advances in the field of arson investigation had been made in the decade since Willingham had been convicted and sentenced to death row. Current research would have revealed, said Hurst, that the house fire that killed Willingham’s his three young daughters was accidental. Hurst disseminated his report to Texas officials—including Texas Governor Rick Perry—in the days before Willingham’s execution, in hope of getting officials to grant Willingham clemency, but to no avail. Willingham was executed by lethal injection in April 2004.
The same year that Willingham was executed, Hurst wrote another report, this time on the behalf of Ernest Willis, who was on death row after being wrongfully convicted of setting fire to a house that killed two women. Hurst was one of the experts who was able to prove that the same faulty arson science that had been used to help convict Willingham had also been used in the Willis case. Willis was released and exonerated in 2004 at the age of 59.
Willis said of Hurst’s passing, “I will forever be incredibly grateful to Dr. Hurst. That man helped save my life.”