Texas Execution of a Man Believed to Be Innocent Continues to Draw Attention


The Texas Forensic Science Commission on Friday found that unreliable fire science methods, which led to the wrongful conviction of Cameron Todd Willingham, are still in use.

Mr. Willingham was convicted of setting the fire that killed his three young daughters in 1991. Shortly before he was executed in 2004, an internationally known arson scientist reviewed the evidence in his case and concluded it was flawed. Governor Rick Perry declined to stay the execution.

The Commission’s examination of the forensic evidence that led to Mr. Willingham’s conviction was restricted this summer when Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott issued an opinion barring the Commission from considering evidence gathered or tested before 2005.

Despite the limitations on its jurisdiction, the Commission acknowledged in its October 28, 2011, amended report that unreliable fire science played a role in Mr. Willingham’s conviction. It identified faulty assumptions and methods in the Willingham case that continue to be used today, and issued 17 recommendations for improving arson investigations in Texas.

The Commission also recommended that Texas arson investigators adopt national standards and establish a timeline for all to receive advanced training. Its recommendations also include new certification criteria for expert witnesses, and additional rules and regulations aimed at preventing the use of outdated science and improving the quality of testimony and analysis.

The Commission’s findings, and the limitations placed on its investigation, raise troubling questions about the reliability of the death penalty.