Innocent and executed…
4WardEver – 9th Jan 2010
adapted from article by Chicago Tribune
Updates listed at the foot of this item
Strapped to a gurney in Texas’ death chamber [0n 17 February 2004], just moments from his execution for setting a fire that killed his three daughters, Cameron Todd Willingham declared his innocence one last time. “I am an innocent man, convicted of a crime I did not commit,” Willingham said angrily. “I have been persecuted for 12 years for something I did not do.” While Texas authorities dismissed his protests, a Tribune investigation of his case shows that Cameron was prosecuted and convicted based primarily on arson theories that have since been repudiated by scientific advances.
According to four fire experts consulted by the Tribune, the original investigation was flawed and it is even possible the fire was accidental.
Before he died by lethal injection Texas judges and Gov. Rick Perry turned aside a report from a prominent fire scientist questioning the conviction. The author of the report, Gerald Hurst, reviewed additional documents, trial testimony and an hour long videotape of the aftermath of the fire scene at the Tribune’s request. Three other fire investigators–private consultants John Lentini and John DeHaan and Louisiana fire chief Kendall Ryland–also examined the materials for the newspaper.
“There’s nothing to suggest to any reasonable arson investigator that this was an arson fire,” said Hurst, a Cambridge University-educated chemist who has investigated scores of fires in his career. “It was just a fire.”
Ryland, chief of the Effie Fire Department and a former fire instructor at Louisiana State University, said that, in his workshop, he tried to re-create the conditions the original fire investigators described. When he could not, he said, it “made me sick to think this guy was executed based on this investigation. … They executed this guy and they’ve just got no idea–at least not scientifically–if he set the fire, or if the fire was even intentionally set.”
Even Edward Cheever, one of the state deputy fire marshals who had assisted in the original investigation of the 1991 fire, acknowledged that Hurst’s criticism was valid. “At the time of the Corsicana fire, we were still testifying to things that aren’t accurate today,” he said. “They were true then, but they aren’t now. “Hurst,” he added, “was pretty much right on. … We know now not to make those same assumptions.”
Cameron Willingham was charged after fire investigators concluded an accelerant had been used to set three separate fires inside the wood-frame, one-story home. Their findings were based on what they described as more than 20 indicators of arson.
Among them: “crazed glass,” the intricate, web like cracks through glass. For years arson investigators believed it was a clear indication that an accelerant had been used to fuel a fire that became exceedingly hot. Now, analysts have established that it is created when hot glass is sprayed with water, as when the fire is put out. It was just such evidence that helped convict Cameron.
Just as Hurst and other consultants dismissed the “crazed glass,” they also said other so-called indicators–floor burn patterns and the charring of wood under the aluminium threshold–were just as unreliable.
The experts said evidence indicated the fire had advanced to flashover, a phenomenon that occurs when a fire gets so hot that gas builds up and causes an explosion. After flashover, “it becomes impossible to visually identify accelerant patterns,” Hurst reported.
He also said the original finding that charring of wood was due to an accelerant under the threshold “is clearly impossible. Liquid accelerants can no more burn under an aluminium threshold than grease can burn in a skillet, even with a loose-fitting lid.”
Kathy Walt, a spokeswoman for the Texas governor, said Perry carefully considered “all of the factors” in Cameron’s case before deciding against a stay.
Navarro County Judge John Jackson, who as the first assistant district attorney prosecuted Cameron, said that while the experts’ review raises some “issues,” he has no doubt that Willingham was guilty. “Does it give me pause? No it does not. I have no reservations.”
But some of the jurors who convicted Cameron Willingham and sentenced him to death were troubled when shown or told of the new case review. “Did anybody know about this prior to his execution?” Dorinda Brokofsky asked. “Now I will have to live with this for the rest of my life. Maybe this man was innocent.”
Scientific advances played a role in the exoneration of another Texas Death Row inmate, Ernest Willis, earlier this year. In Pecos County, in West Texas, District Atty. Ori White had to decide whether to retry Willis, who had been convicted of setting a fire that killed two women and had spent 17 years on Death Row. Willis had gotten a new trial on unrelated legal issues in the case.
Before making his decision, White asked Hurst to review the fire evidence. The prosecutor also asked Ryland to conduct an independent review. Hurst concluded there was no evidence of arson, that the fire most likely was accidental. Ryland concurred. White then dropped the case against Willis and Willis walked free. It was the 12th time Hurst’s work had led to dismissal of charges or an acquittal.