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Willingham Court of Inquiry Hung Up in Appellate Court: Briefs Due Tomorrow

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October 21, 2010

Last Thursday, a Court of Inquiry hearing began to determine whether the state of Texas executed an innocent man, Cameron Todd Willingham. But shortly after the conclusion of evidence in the hearing, the 3rd Court of Appeals of Texas in Austin granted the Navarro County District Attorney’s office’s request to temporarily stay all proceedings while that court addresses whether Judge Charlie Baird should have recused himself. Tomorrow, the Innocence Project will file a brief by 5 p.m. outlining why the hearing should proceed.

Willingham was convicted of murdering his three daughters in an arson fire that engulfed the family’s home in Corsicana, Texas, in 1991. Thirteen days before his scheduled execution, Cambridge-trained chemist/fire scientist Dr. Gerald Hurst issued a report finding that the fire was not intentionally set (PDF), and the conviction was based on faulty fire science. Despite this new information, Gov. Rick Perry refused to grant a 30-day stay of execution, and Willingham died by lethal injection on February 17, 2004.

Further investigations into the Willingham fire by the Chicago Tribune and a peer review panel of five other fire scientists and arson experts (PDF) came to the same conclusion as Hurst: the fire was not arson. In a 2009 report commissioned by the Texas Forensic Science Commission (PDF), Dr. Craig Beyler concluded that the fire science used to convict Willingham was woefully out-of-date at the time of the trial:

The investigators [of the Willingham fire] had poor understandings of fire science and failed to acknowledge or apply the contemporaneous understanding of the limitations of fire indicators. Their methodologies did not comport with the scientific method or the process of elimination.

At last Thursday’s Court of Inquiry hearing, Dr. John Lentini, another fire expert who studied the case, testified he agreed with Beyler’s assertion that outdated fire science was used to convict Willingham. Dr. Hurst also testified about his report’s findings, reasserting he found nothing in his investigation to indicate arson.

On Tuesday, PBS’s Frontline profiled the Willingham case. Dr. Hurst told Frontline: “There is not one iota of evidence that the fire was arson. Not one iota.”

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