Cameron Todd Willingham and Claude Jones, two almost certainly innocent men put to death in Texas
Twelve people have been exonerated from Texas’ death row and yet the state of Texas has made few if any attempts to reform its death penalty system. Even more troubling, recent developments strongly suggest that Texas has allowed the execution of two men who were almost certainly innocent and whose convictions were largely based on unreliable scientific evidence.
Cameron Todd Willingham was convicted of murdering his two daughters in an arson fire that engulfed the family’s home in Corsicana, Texas, in 1991. Less than two months before Willingham’s execution, his attorneys presented a report by Dr. Gerald Hurst, a leading national expert in fire science, who found that the conviction was based on faulty fire science, and arson was not the cause of the fire. Despite this new information, Gov. Rick Perry refused to grant a 30-day stay of execution, and Willingham was executed by lethal injection in 2004.
Further investigations into the Willingham fire by the Chicago Tribune and a peer review panel of five other fire scientists and arson experts came to the same conclusion as Hurst: the fire was not arson. The Texas Forensic Science Commission agreed to investigate Willingham’s case in 2008. In 2010, days before the Commission’s own expert was scheduled to testify that the arson investigators in Willingham’s case should have known that their science was flawed, Governor Perry replaced key members of the Commission and appointed John Bradley, a District Attorney, as chair. The reshuffling of the Commission delayed the investigation for months. Meanwhile, at the request of Willingham’s family members, a judge opened a court of inquiry in the case, to determine if Willingham was wrongfully executed. Attorneys for the state have attempted to stall or thwart these proceedings, rather than allow the court to consider the flawed forensic science and other new evidence that supports Willingham’s innocence. These obstructionist moves by the Governor and prosecutors suggest that Texas is seeking to mask the very real possibility that it has executed an innocent man.
Claude Jones maintained his innocence until his execution in December 2000. Jones was convicted and sentenced to death on the basis of now-discredited hair analysis of a hair found at the crime scene—the only physical evidence that tied Jones to the murder. His lawyers’ repeated requests in post-conviction proceedings to test the DNA hair sample were denied. Finally, before his execution, Jones’s lawyers asked then-Governor George W. Bush to grant Jones a 30-day stay in order to conduct the DNA testing. Bush’s staff failed to mention to him that Jones wanted to test the hair for DNA. Bush denied the request, and Jones was executed. Texas prosecutors refused to turn over, and in fact, sought to destroy the evidence after Jones’s execution, but his attorneys pressed for posthumous DNA testing. They were eventually successful. DNA results released in November 2010 revealed that the hair did not belong to Jones. His case, like Willingham’s, spotlights the serious challenges in Texas to ensuring even basic justice for those sentenced to death.