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Innocent Man May Have Been Executed Based on Faulty Science

Christopher Hill,
Capital Punishment Project
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August 27, 2009

A report (PDF) released Tuesday by Dr. Craig Beyler to the Texas Forensic Science Commission found that a fire which killed three children in 1991 was not arson. This finding is important because the children were not the only people killed as a result of that fire. Their father, Cameron Willingham, was executed in 2004 after being convicted of murdering them by intentionally setting the fire.

Willingham was largely convicted based on testimony of arson investigators whose methods even at the time of the trial had been thoroughly discredited.

This is not the first time experts have examined Willingham’s case. Several arson investigators reviewed the case for the Chicago Tribune in 2004 and another set of experts did the same for the Innocence Project in 2006 (PDF). These experts all found exactly what Dr. Beyler, who was hired by the State of Texas, found. The science used to convict and execute Willingham was bogus and the fire may well have been accidental.

We’ve blogged about other cases in which junk science (and its practitioners, junk scientists), have sent innocent people to death row. Ernest Willis, also sent to Texas’ death row because of an “arson murder,” was luckier than Willingham. Texas had not yet managed to put him to death before experts concluded that the fire was not intentionally set. Willis was exonerated while still alive. Willingham was not so fortunate.

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