Shady Forensic Evidence Casts Doubt on Texas Execution

Thursday, August 27th, 2009

A disturbing new report casts doubt on a recent execution in Texas.

In a withering critique, a nationally known fire scientist has told a state commission on forensics that Texas fire investigators had no basis to rule a deadly house fire was an arson — a finding that led to the murder conviction and execution of Cameron Todd Willingham.

The finding comes in the first state-sanctioned review of an execution in Texas, home to the country’s busiest death chamber. If the commission reaches the same conclusion, it could lead to the first-ever declaration by an official state body that an inmate was wrongly executed.

Indeed, the report concludes there was no evidence to determine that the December 1991 fire was even set, and it leaves open the possibility the blaze that killed three children was an accident and there was no crime at all — the same findings found in a Chicago Tribune investigation of the case published in December 2004.

Willingham, the father of those children, was executed in February 2004. He protested his innocence to the end…

Among Beyler’s key findings: that investigators failed to examine all of the electrical outlets and appliances in the Willinghams’ house in the small Texas town of Corsicana, did not consider other potential causes for the fire, came to conclusions that contradicted witnesses at the scene, and wrongly concluded Willingham’s injuries could not have been caused as he said they were.

The state fire marshal on the case, Beyler concluded in his report, had “limited understanding” of fire science. The fire marshal “seems to be wholly without any realistic understanding of fires and how fire injuries are created,” he wrote.

The marshal’s findings, he added, “are nothing more than a collection of personal beliefs that have nothing to do with science-based fire investigation.”

Beyler is the ninth forensic arson specialist to review the case. The other eight came to similar conclusions. The other major piece of evidence against Willingham was the testimony of a jailhouse informant who claimed Willingham confessed to him. Jailhouse snitch testimony tends to be a pretty common second piece of evidence in these stories. Funny how that works.

Willingham isn’t the most sympathetic figure. He was a career criminal, and at his trial witnesses testified to a number of disturbing statements and incidents, including one witness who said Willingham once beat his pregnant wife in an effort to cause a miscarriage.

Death penalty opponents have cast this latest report as proof that Texas executed an innocent man (I should note that after reading initial accounts of the report, I cast the case in a similar light on my Twitter feed). Upon reflection, I think a more accurate characterization would be to say that Texas executed a man who should never have been convicted. The Tribune’s description of the latest report doesn’t say the fire wasn’t caused by arson, it says there wasn’t enough evidence to conclusively say that it was, and that investigators failed to consider other causes.

None of which makes Willigham’s conviction and execution any less disturbing. His case is merely the latest example of the damage done by junk forensics that should never have been allowed in the courtroom—and of the failure of both the trial judge and the appeals courts in allowing it to stand.

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35 Responses to “Shady Forensic Evidence Casts Doubt on Texas Execution”

  1. #1 |  Billy Beck | 

    “The state fire marshal on the case, Beyler concluded in his report, had ‘limited understanding’ of fire science. The fire marshal ‘seems to be wholly without any realistic understanding of fires and how fire injuries are created,’ he wrote.”

    Ladies and gentlemen, I present to you “The Rule of Law”.

    Try to understand: if you honestly and rigorously examine the epistemology of this stuff, what you will discover that it always devolves to the rule of men. Eventually it always comes to the point of power, and rational accommodations of justice have no necessary place in any of it.

  2. #2 |  zero | 

    I’ll admit to a very limited understanding of the judicial process, but it seems to me like testimony from a jailhouse snitch would be considered hearsay. Why is it not?

  3. #3 |  Dave Krueger | 

    Death penalty opponents have cast this latest report as proof that Texas executed an innocent man (I should note that after reading initial accounts of the report, I cast the case in a similar light on my Twitter feed). Upon reflection, I think a more accurate characterization would be to say that Texas executed a man who should never have been convicted.

    A man “who should never have been convicted” is an innocent man. That’s the very foundation upon which our system of justice is based.

    I often hear it argued that, just because someone wasn’t convicted, doesn’t mean he’s innocent. By definition, in the eyes of the state, he is innocent.

    Regardless of anyone else’s opinion about whether “he did it”, if you come to the conclusion that he shouldn’t have been convicted, then the bottom line is that the state executed a man, who, in the state’s view, is innocent.

  4. #4 |  Ira | 

    To be found not guilty is not the same as being innocent.

  5. #5 |  Ariel | 

    To be found guilty is not the same as not being innocent.

  6. #6 |  MattH | 

    Regardless of anyone else’s opinion about whether “he did it”, if you come to the conclusion that he shouldn’t have been convicted, then the bottom line is that the state executed a man, who, in the state’s view, is innocent.

    Except that he was convicted. The state commission must posthumously overturn his conviction for him to become legally innocent. And this is in Texas.

  7. #7 |  Yizmo Gizmo | 

    What?! Prosecutorial misconduct in *Texas*?
    Sleazy jailhouse snitch? Flimsy evidence?
    Nah, I aint buyin’ it!

  8. #8 |  Dave Krueger | 

    #5 MattH

    Except that he was convicted. The state commission must posthumously overturn his conviction for him to become legally innocent. And this is in Texas.

    I have no reason to doubt that. I was simply pointing out that, if the conviction is indeed corrupt, then whether “he did it” is immaterial. Specifically, if Radley is making a case that Willingham should not have been convicted, then he is also making the case that the state executed an “innocent” man (in this case, one who was not credibly convicted).

    Also, I would hate to think that the state is the only voice that matters in the determination of whether an innocent man was executed. Of course, I’m also one of those radicals who objects to the state’s declaration that pot has no medicinal value. Just because they say it, doesn’t make it so.

  9. #9 |  Judi | 

    ["If you think that any human system of justice is infallible, then you are ignorant. If you think that no person has been falsely condemned to death, then you are naive. If you think that even one innocent person, ripped from heir life and their passion and to put to death at the hands of the state is in any way justifiable, then you are evil."] -Joshua W. H. Steiner

  10. #10 |  scottp | 

    I agree with Ira. Being found not guilty isn’t the same as being innocent.
    OJ was found not guilty, but he sure as hell isn’t innocent.

  11. #11 |  Andrew S. | 

    #2 zero

    I’ll admit to a very limited understanding of the judicial process, but it seems to me like testimony from a jailhouse snitch would be considered hearsay. Why is it not?

    Because it’s not considered to be hearsay at all. Under the Federal Rules of Evidence, an admission isn’t considered to be hearsay.

    The better question on jailhouse snitch testimony is why anybody with the IQ of a field mouse would find it to be credible.

  12. #12 |  Cynical In CA | 

    Sounds like a “legal” lynching to me. Oh well, at least lynching is getting a bit more sophisticated these days.

    But we must remember above all else, it is a FAIR TRIAL that is paramount in American just-us, not actual guilt or innocence. A little birdie named Scalia told me that.

    Be nice to your neighbors, don’t beat your wife and take good care of your kids — remember, the Sword of Damocles is hanging over your head.

  13. #13 |  Dave Krueger | 

    “Innocent until proven guilty.”

    You either subscribe to it or you don’t.

    Everyone gets to think what they want about the case, of course, but since the state failed to convict OJ, it had to consider him innocent and treat him accordingly (by letting him out of jail). Also, I might point out that the state, in the form of the prosecution team, should not have blamed the jury or the defense or made claims that OJ was guilty after the trial. Once an acquittal is rendered, the state has only one responsibility and that is to shut the fuck up.

  14. #14 |  Janie | 

    #13, Dave Krueger: Simpson was found not guilty, so what about the second trial, where he WAS found guilty? (Whether of wrongful death or civil rights violations, I can’t remember.)

    A lot of people think this is not double jeopardy, and maybe it isn’t as long as it doesn’t happen to THEM.

  15. #15 |  MattH | 

    @ Dave, I don’t disagree with you (and thought of your point myself), but one does have to be careful switching back and forth between different definitions of innocence; in particular, if I were to tell someone the state executed an innocent man, I would only wish to imply I thought he was actually innocent of the crime alleged (not merely improperly convicted), and in that light I can see why Radley phrased it in the careful way that he did.

  16. #16 |  Billy Beck | 

    On Simpson: everybody else can think what they want. I think he’s a despicable character, and this is a fact: the state of California did not make it case to me. An accusation of murder is a terrible thing, almost as horrible as the crime itself. I’m convinced that this point bears periodic emphasis in the flash-unconsciousness times that we live in, in which actual concepts are ordinarily blown on the winds of media sensation and people keep believing that they are thinking. My own personal judgment and ethics — which are the only ones that count — will not tolerate convicting anyone on a murder charge without conviction: my own rational endorsement of a demonstration of facts in the case. Even accounting for my contempt of the state, those L.A. clowns came nowhere near making their case to me.

    And I heartily stand on the maxim: “Better ten guilty men should go free than one innocent man is punished.”

  17. #17 |  Chris in AL | 

    Exactly Matt

    In fact, the case is very cold now, but there may have been other evidence that would have legitimately proven the man’s guilt. But why bother to look when you can just lie?

    I am so cynical now that I don’t buy that the original investigators just didn’t know anything about fires. Bullshit. They just didn’t care. This was more Hayne crap. The real evidence is ignored because the lie is easier.

  18. #18 |  KBCraig | 

    I understand what Radley was trying to say with the “innocent” comment.

    With 18 years working in corrections, I’ve encountered maybe one or two individuals who were innocent. I’ve encounter a lot who were wrongly convicted. The difference is that the latter were engaged in crimes, just not necessarily the crimes for which they were convicted. (No, that doesn’t make it any more acceptable to me – wrongful convictions are always wrong.)

    On the other hand, technically wrongful convictions are often gained against people who were actually doing the thing alleged.

    There is an interesting mindset among many of these folks, though: “The police didn’t have probable cause, therefore the search wasn’t valid, therefore the conviction was wrong, therefore I didn’t even do it!

  19. #19 |  fwb | 

    If the answer is that an innocent man was executed then the best answer is to execute all those who were involved in the persecution of this case. Eye for an eye!

    The govt gets whomever it wants. Watch your back.

  20. #20 |  TomMil | 

    Chris;

    I agree. This appears to be a rush to judgment scenario and my experience, with far too many in law enforcement, is that the ends justify the means. I think it is actually more likely that the Fire Marshall lied – than it is that the fuckin’ Fire Marshall didn’t know shit about fires!! But that would suggest that the “good guys” are “bad guys” in this case and committed State sanctioned murder. We just can’t even suggest that, so we’ll just say he’s a fuckin’ retard but not a criminal. Okay, fine….how many other “not guilty”(?!) people have the “good guys” in Texas murdered?

  21. #21 |  Mike T | 

    Dave,

    A man “who should never have been convicted” is an innocent man. That’s the very foundation upon which our system of justice is based.

    Innocent as charged, not innocent period. Radley was commenting on the moral nature of this man which is something entirely different than the legal question of innocence. You are both right, but you’re just quibbling over semantics here.

  22. #22 |  Mike T | 

    If the answer is that an innocent man was executed then the best answer is to execute all those who were involved in the persecution of this case. Eye for an eye!

    You are probably just kidding, but the Bible actually provides that negligent homicide is a capital offense and unlike modern American law, it does not have a “good faith” protection for bumbling bureaucrats who execute innocent men out of avoidable ignorance.

  23. #23 |  scott | 

    I’m certain Mr. Willingham is pleased at the attempts to dissect the word “innocent” into its legal, actual and perceived elements.

    But he’s still dead. And there’s still no legal, actual or perceived recourse available to him.

  24. #24 |  Judi | 

    fwb, Mohandas Ghandi said, “An eye for an eye makes the whole world go blind.”

  25. #25 |  smurfy | 

    “His case is merely the latest example of the damage done by junk forensics that should never have been allowed in the courtroom—and of the failure of both the trial judge and the appeals courts in allowing it to stand.”

    What about the failure of defense counsel to challenge the expert testimony? And yes, I realize he probably had a public defender with limited resources, but that’s part of the problem too.

  26. #26 |  Steve Verdon | 

    “Innocent until proven guilty.”

    You either subscribe to it or you don’t.

    This is a legal construct and it is done this way, ideally, to prevent innocents from being wrongfully punished under the view that letting the guilty go free is not nearly as bad as punishing the innocent. Its not a bad view when constructing a legal system.

    However, human beliefs are different. They operate by gradations and thus while in the technical legal sense OJ is innocent, my own beliefs based on all the information I’ve aquired (which admittedly isn’t complete) leads me to assign a rather high probability that Simpson butchered two people–i.e. he is guilty of murder.

    So I have no qualms agreeing with both Dave and other posters who also believe Simpson to be guilty. I can understand both view points and I don’t even think they are even mutually exclusive.

    This case is another similar situation. Was Willingham a bad person? By all accounts yes. Was he guilty of the crime he was executed for? According to 9 experts the information contained in the investigation is not sufficient to arrive at that conclusion. He might very well be guilty, but we can’t support that conclusion with any reasonable degree of belief, let alone enough to convict and execute him. Is he innocent? Yes, in a strict legal sense he is. Is he guilty of being a son-of-a-bitch? Yes. Still, it highlights how the criminal justice system is flawed and why the death penalty is a bad policy.

  27. #27 |  Helmut O' Hooligan | 

    “The state fire marshal on the case, Beyler concluded in his report, had “limited understanding” of fire science. The fire marshal “seems to be wholly without any realistic understanding of fires and how fire injuries are created,” he wrote”

    Aw, come on ya’ll. He’s a good old boy. He was kin to my good buddy. He tried real hard. He took that class that one year. Darn it, I know we got the documentation for that somewhere. Ya’ll dad gum liberals are always goin’ after good guys like him and Dr Hayne. I think yer soft on crime. Yeah, that’s it…

  28. #28 |  Dave Krueger | 

    #14 Janie

    #13, Dave Krueger: Simpson was found not guilty, so what about the second trial, where he WAS found guilty? (Whether of wrongful death or civil rights violations, I can’t remember.)

    A lot of people think this is not double jeopardy, and maybe it isn’t as long as it doesn’t happen to THEM.

    The second OJ trial was a civil trial, not a civil rights trial. A civil trial results in a financial settlement, not a guilty verdict.

    If it had been a civil rights trial, as was the case with the cops who beat Rodney King, I would consider it to be double jeopardy (although the law doesn’t see it that way).

    My daughter handled the appeal of a child porn case several years ago in which a woman was charged under both federal and state child porn laws (for a single picture of her daughter spotted when the film was dropped off at the 1-hour photo lab). The federal charge was possession and the state charge was production (I think), but I’m pretty sure she could have been charged with possession under both state and federal law because they are two separate jurisdictions which, under the law is apparently not double jeopardy.

    The Constitution means whatever “they” say it means.

  29. #29 |  jb | 

    Beck nailed it.

    Wish I’d said what he did.

  30. #30 |  Scott Cobb | 

    For everyone who is concerned that Texas has executed a person who was innocent of the crime for which he was executed, please join us in Austin at the Texas Capitol on October 24, 2009 for the 10th Annual March to Abolish the Death Penalty.

    http://marchforabolition.org

    At the 7th Annual March in 2006, the family of Todd Willingham attended and delivered a letter to Governor Perry that said in part:

    “We are the family of Cameron Todd Willingham. Our names are Eugenia Willingham, Trina Willingham Quinton and Joshua Easley. Todd was an innocent person executed by Texas on February 17, 2004. We have come to Austin today from Ardmore, Oklahoma to stand outside the Texas Governor’s Mansion and attempt to deliver this letter to you in person, because we want to make sure that you know about Todd’s innocence and to urge you to stop executions in Texas and determine why innocent people are being executed in Texas.”

    “Please ensure that no other family suffers the tragedy of seeing one of their loved ones wrongfully executed. Please enact a moratorium on executions and create a special blue ribbon commission to study the administration of the death penalty in Texas. Texas also needs a statewide Office of Public Defenders for Capital Cases. Such an office will go a long way towards preventing innocent people from being executed. A moratorium will ensure that no other innocent people are executed while the system is being studied and reforms implemented.”

    Perry never responded to the Willingham family’s letter.

  31. #31 |  supercat | 

    First of all, I join with those suggesting that the fact that a person should not have been convicted in the fashion that he was does not imply that the person should not have been convicted in some more proper fashion. Further, issues of ‘must have been guilty of something’ can be complex. For example, suppose that you are on a jury and have 100% guaranteed accurate knowledge of the following information:

    -1- Mr. John Smith stands accused of murdering his wife Mrs. Jane Smith.

    -2- A woman, who the coroner identified as Mrs. Jane Smith, was deliberately murdered by Mr. John Smith.

    -3- After the prosecution rested its case, a woman claiming to be Mrs. Jane Smith walked into the courtroom.

    -4- The woman who walked into the courtroom was in fact the real Mrs. Jane Smith. The decedent was actually Sarah Jones.

    -5- Mr. Smith had, and carried out, a scheme to murder Sarah Jones and conspire with Mrs. Jane Smith to plant some material so as to encourage a false identification.

    Mr. Smith stands accused of murdering Mrs. Smith. He did not do so. On the other hand, he did commit murder, and any mis-identification of the victim was a result of Mr. Smith’s deliberate actions. If Mr. Smith is acquitted, double-jeopardy rules would almost certainly prevent his conviction for the murder which he actually did commit. So what should happen? What if the jury convicts Mr. Smith of murdering Mrs. Smith before the facts of the case come to light? What should happen then, again bearing in mind double-jeopardy rules?

  32. #32 |  Tom | 

    Supercat,

    You’re understanding of double jeopardy is entirely wrong. If you are put trial for killing person A when in fact the true victim is person B. Then it’s a material change in fact and an entirely different crime. You would simply be tried for the murder of person B. The original indictment would be invalid and get dismissed and the Prosecutor would just file a new murder charge. Your lawyer could try to argue double jeopardy all day but no judge would listen and it’s quite clear that is not the constitutionally double jeopardy was never meant to cover such a situation.

  33. #33 |  Lloyd Flack | 

    Accidental house fires are more common than arson. If you have no other information then you assume it was an accident until you have reason to believe otherwise. The States evidence of arson in this case is almost useless, a poor forensic investigation and a prison informant. Thus there is no reason to revise the initial assumption. As far as I can see it is much more likely that they executed an innocent man than a murder. It is possible that he murdered his children but he probably didn’t.

  34. #34 |  pam | 

    house fires are so common. Heaven help the survivor especially if they are a little bit of a loser. You’re whole background can be scrutinized and twisted. I agree with #33 more than likely he didn’t murder his family.

  35. #35 |  supercat | 

    My understanding of double-jeopardy is that once a prosecution starts a trial, if it does not score a conviction or mistrial, the state is generally forever enjoined from prosecuting the defendant for the same overt actions. If someone is accused of stealing a bag containing ten bundles of currency valued at $1,000 each, the state is not allowed to prosecute him for stealing one bundle, then prosecute him for another bundle, etc. so as to have ten tries at a conviction.

    In my earlier-posited scenario, if the state were to charge the defendant with killing the person identified in the morgue as cadaver #953-A9-QRZ7, believed to be Mrs. Jane Smith, the fact that Mrs. Smith was alive would not disprove the charge that the defendant murdered cadaver #953-A9-QRZ7. On the other hand, if the charge specified that the defendant killed Mrs. Smith, and if the state introduced evidence that e.g. the defendant was seen shooting the decedent at 10:43pm, it would be hard to argue–were the state to later bring charges against Mr. Smith for shooting Sarah Jones–that the alleged act of pulling the trigger at 10:43pm was not the same act of pulling the trigger of which the defendant had been acquitted.

    I know that appealing a conviction implies a waiver of double jeopardy for the actions implied by the conviction; someone who successfully appeals a murder conviction may be retried for manslaughter, for example. If Mr. Smith’s conviction were overturned on appeal and the case was remanded for trial, the state might be able to charge Mr. Smith with murdering Mrs. Jones. But if he were acquitted outright for the murder of Mrs. Smith, I don’t think he could be tried for the murder of Mrs. Jones unless the substance of the crime was disjoint from the original.

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