Expert for Texas Commission concludes no evidence of arson in executed inmate's case

This came up in the current death penalty thread, but deserves a thread of its own.

A man named Earnest Willis was convicted of the capital murder of two women by arson and spent 17 years in prison, but was exonerated when it was shown that the forensic methods used to convict him had since been wholly discredited. He sued the state and won an award of $430,000. He was released October 6, 2004. This would be an “all’s well that ends well” story if it weren’t for one unfortunate fact: two separate panels with a total of eight investigators, commissioned by the Chicago Tribune and the Cardozo School of Law’s Innocence Project, concluded that the same methodologies were used to convict Cameron Willingham, who was executed February 17, 2004 for the 1991 murder of his three children.

The Innocence Project made a formal request for an inquiry to the newly formed Texas Forensic Science Commission, a state agency formed by the legislature to investigate professional negligence and misconduct in criminal cases. The commission accepted the request as one of its first two inquiries, the other being Carlos DeLuna. To that end they commissioned arson investigator Craig Beyler in August of last year to conduct an independent investigation into the arson evidence presented at Willingham’s trial. Beyler’s report came out last Tuesday.

Cameron Todd Willingham case: Expert says fire for which father was executed was not arson

The New Yorker issued a lenghty article summarizing the case:

Trial by Fire: Did Texas execute an innocent man?

If the Texas Commission accepts Beyler’s findings, this will mark the first time that a state body has officially recognized a wrongful execution.

ETA: Thanks to davidw for linking to the New Yorker article in the other thread.

That’s interesting. However, this statement from the article -

is not true.



Honestly… it was only a matter of time before something like this came up. The death penalty is broken, it can’t be fixed, and it needed to be abolished yesterday.

Ah… evidence of being callous is not evidence of being guilty of arson mate. If that is in fact evidence of being callous, hard to tell with the abbreviated rendition there (from a very short summary that is written from POV that he is guilty).

In any case, your cite doesn’t really say anything about the article’s observation.

Yes. It may be that, as stated in the article Shodan cites, that Willingham was a psychopath, who abused his children, and stood by cold-heartedly as they died in the fire. That is not evidence that he is guilty of arson.

I believe the author is using “evidence of significance” to mean the evidence directly linking Willingham to arson, which is the arson investigation and his alleged jailhouse confession. If the arson evidence is unsound and the informant perjured himself regarding his confession, testimony that he acted unusually during the fire won’t be sufficient to support a finding of guilt. If the arson evidence was sound and the confession was legit it’s part of the overall picture, but standing alone, it’s worthless. Moreover, the same witness who described him as having been more concerned over his vehicle than his children only did so once he was the focus of the investigation. Her initial statment described him as “hysterical” and said the “front of the house exploded;” she amended this to say that she smoke coming out of the house “wasn’t that thick” and that he could have reentered the house, depite the fact that he might have tried while she was calling the fire department.

Well, it would indicate he is the kind of person who is able to burn his children.

That said I encourage everyone to read the (very lengthy) New Yorker article cited in the OP. I read it a few days ago. Among other things it notes Willingham’s wife as saying that while he hit her he never hit his children and if anything the kids were “spoiled rotten”. Initially his wife felt he could not have done this (she changed her mind later after reviewing court testimony but she was unaware of the report that showed the evidence for arson was soundly debunked).

The New Yorker article is a tear jerker…especially towards the end.

Apart from the injustice of it all this bit really pisses me off (from the New Yorker article):

Wonder if anyone has waved this report under his smug nose?

And precisely which of his actions should he have shown remorse for?

I’m confused. I only read the first link (not the New Yorker article) so maybe that’s why. Focusing on just the narrow issue of how the fire started…The original method that determined this man started the fire was proven as unreliable/outdated. But, has anyone conclusively proven that the fire was not intentionally caused? Do we know the cause of the fire? Because just disproving the method used to say this man committed arson was faulty, doesn’t mean he still couldn’t have started the fire.

Maybe I overlooked something, if so, I apologize.

Go to the New Yorker article, (use this link as it shows the whole article in one web page rather than several pages). Search for “Hurst’s patents” which will take you to the start of the rundown of the evidence for arson and its debunking. I’d quote it here but there is a lot and would probably violate fair use restrictions here and/or break the board with so much text (interesting reading though, worth the time I think).

TL;DR version:

From the New Yorker article:

“Without having visited the fire scene, Hurst says, it was impossible to pinpoint the cause of the blaze. But, based on the evidence, he had little doubt that it was an accidental fire—one caused most likely by the space heater or faulty electrical wiring. It explained why there had never been a motive for the crime. Hurst concluded that there was no evidence of arson, and that a man who had already lost his three children and spent twelve years in jail was about to be executed based on ‘junk science.’ Hurst wrote his report in such a rush that he didn’t pause to fix the typos.”

On preview: beaten to it by Whack-a-Mole.

Even your own cite does not support your assertion that the first quoted statement is untrue.

Further, the synopsis is so poorly written it misrepresents the evidence he was convicted on. As noted in the New Yorker article, chemical analysis showed evidence of accelerant (mineral spirits) on the threshhold to the front door only. They never did find any chemical evidence anywhere in the house. A likely explanation for the accelerant found in that area is that there was a grill and a container of lighter fluid found on the front porch of the home. The lighter fluid the Willinghams used to grill with was likely knocked over in the fire and subsequent hosing down of the porch by firefighters. The linked article notes in the first sentence of the summary:

Bolding mine, indicating assumption of facts not in evidence.

This report didn’t exist in 2006.

The most important conclusion of Hurst’s investigation and the Texas commission’s findings was that the arson testimony had no scientific basis, that it was based on nothing more than “folklore” among arson investigators. It was no better than a psychic declaring that a defendant had committed the offense he was charged with. Couple this with the reliance on the testimony of a bipolar, drug-addicted jailhouse snitch and the original statements of the witnesses to the police (did Willingham’s lawyers question their change of story?), and you end up with no real evidence against the man. I hope the pressure is kept on the state of Texas and that Willingham is exonerated.

I share your hope. I also wonder what this means for public acceptance of capital punishment in America. I would assume there are plenty of people who now support capital punishment that would have grave misgivings about it with the knowledge that we actually are executing factually and legally innocent individuals. Would the exoneration of an executed individual make its abolishment more likely? How are state governments going to handle this information? How is the Supreme Court going to handle it? What’s the recourse against a state that wrongfully executes? Who is to blame and are we going to hold those people legally responsible for the wrong that’s been done?

I can’t help but think that no justice will come of this case regardless of whether Texas exonerates the man or not. Obviously, for Willingham it’s too late, but someone should be held responsible and things need to change drastically else it happens again.

Hear, hear. The typical dodge in these cases is that further inquiry is moot because the case can’t be re-heard. Much of the reason we can’t point to the type of report Justice Scalia was talking about is based on that dodge: after the execution, further investigation is considered irrelevant.

Here’s hoping that the attention on this report will reach “shout from the rooftops” levels and it won’t be buried as moot.

Irrelevant. He was wrong, and should be confronted with his error until he admits to it.

Well, sure - apart from the evidence, there is no evidence. What evidence do you have that the informant perjured himself? The jury apparently found the informant credible.


Well, for one thing, we have the fact that experts in the field seem to universally agree that the fire wasn’t set intentionally–that there is no evidence that it was intentionally set, and that one would expect to see such evidence if the fire was arson.

Given that the informant testified that the fire was set intentionally, his testimony appears on its face to be perjured–it’s inconsistent with the physical evidence.

Also, the informant was and is mentally ill, recanted and then returned to his testimony, and, most interestingly, to quote from the new yorker article:

(emphasis added).