STUDIES: Texas Forensic Science Panel Calls for Changes but Says Nothing About Possible Wrongful Execution

On April 15, the Texas Forensic Science Commission recommended more education and training for fire investigators following its review of the controversial case of Cameron Todd Willingham (pictured), who was executed in 2004 for setting the fire that killed his three daughters. The Commission made 16 recommendations for investigators, lawyers and lawmakers. It did not, however, decide whether arson investigators in Willingham’s case were negligent or guilty of professional misconduct, and was not empowered to decide whether Willingham was likely innocent of the crime. The panel recommended establishing a code of ethics for investigators and procedures for involving the state fire marshal’s office in fatal home fires. Another recommendation urged the fire marshal to adhere to standards established by the National Fire Protection Association and to become a model for local fire investigators in Texas. Willingham maintained his innocence until his execution, claiming that the fire could have been accidentally started by his two-year-old daughter who died in the fire. Since the original 1991 investigation, several arson experts have reviewed the evidence in the case and concluded that the fire was of undetermined cause or accidental, but likely not arson.

The Commission urged investigators to keep original files of cases and forward copies of documentation to prosecutors and defense attorneys. They are awaiting a ruling from the Texas Attorney General about whether they can pursue the Willingham case further. Stephen Saloom, policy director for the Innocence Project, which first raised questions about the case, praised parts of the report, “In general, I’m satisfied,” he said . “They were constrained by the AG’s opinion and have had to overcome the chairman’s relentless efforts to keep a lot of issues down. In the areas they’re permitted to address, they’ve made some significant progress and deserve credit for that.”

(“Texas Science Panel Adopts Arson Recommendations,” Associated Press, April 16, 2011). Read more about Cameron Todd Willingham. See Executed But Possibly Innocent and Innocence.