Texas Arson Review Finds Potential Innocence Cases

August 17th, 2012

Last fall the Innocence Project of Texas and the State Fire Marshall’s office teamed up to review over 1,000 fires previously determined to be arson. The review was spurred by a report from the Texas Forensic Science Commission published last fall which cast serious doubt on Cameron Todd Willingham’s 1992 arson conviction due to flawed forensic science that was used to convict him. Willingham was convicted of setting a fire that killed his three young children. Despite questions about the veracity of his conviction, Willingham was executed in 2004 for the crime. The review of old arson cases seeks to identify other cases where people may have been convicted due to the same outdated and unvalidated forensic science that led to Willingham’s conviction.

So far Jeff Blackburn, Director of the Innocence Project of Texas, and his team have identified 26 potential innocence cases. The team will continue to review the cases and in some, may file for habeas relief. They project that between 10 and 15 cases will merit litigation. Blackburn describes three cases that raise red flags:
“One case, from 1999, involves a fire that happened in a mobile home. The model of mobile home was apparently later recalled for having wiring and electrical problems that led to fires. The state’s case was made by a local fire marshal who testified that in his opinion accelerants had to have been used. Another case involves a victim with a history of sleepwalking and sleep apnea who, according to the defendant – his wife – knocked over a candle. Again, the testimony of the local expert carried the state’s case but it seems to be based on outmoded science. Yet another conviction involves an arson murder in a home that was located close to a ruptured gas line.”

Despite concerns that the review might be too ambitious of an undertaking, the IP of Texas and the State Fire Marshall’s office have made significant process since they began reviewing cases last fall. Stay tuned for new details as the review progresses.

Read a DISCOVER magazine article explaining how our understanding of fire science has evolved over time.
Read a PBS FRONTLINE story about the current review in Texas.