Saturday, August 16, 2008

Is the State of Texas guilty of murder?

In 2004, Cameron Willingham, a Corsicana auto mechanic convicted of setting the fire that killed his 1-year-old twins and 2-year-old stepdaughter, was executed by the State of Texas. Today, 17 years after the fire, there are questions regarding his conviction.

Mr. Willingham went to his death proclaiming his innocence. Rick Perry, the Texas governor, and state judges, ignored a report from Mr. Gerald Hurst, a prominent fire scientist, that questioned the conclusions of the state's expert witness at Mr. Willingham's trial.

At Willingham's trial, Deputy State Fire Marshal Manuel Vasquez, now deceased, testified that he concluded the fire was set deliberately due to "pour patterns" and "puddle configurations" on the floor. He also testified that his determination that the fire had originated in three locations solidified his opinion that the deadly fire was the result of arson. He also accused Mr. Willingham of lying to him during the investigation.

As a result of an investigation by The Innocence Project, a panel of national fire experts stated that the expert testimony in Mr. Willingham's trial was based on outdated and invalid investigative methods.

Mr. Alan Levy, a member of the Texas Forensic Science Commission, created in response to the scandal involving the Houston Police Department Crime Lab, told Mr. Gabriel Oberfield of The Innnocence Project that the state of science regarding arson was "dismal." Regardless of the standards at the time of Mr. Willingham's conviction, the techniques and methods used by forensic experts had improved by the time of his execution.

Investigators from The Innocence Project concluded that the evidence found at the site was consistent with a "flashover" caused by the intense heat inside the house at the time of the fire. Investigators also found that Mr. Vasquez' contention that the fire had started in three separate locations was incorrect -- the locations Mr. Vasquez spoke of were contiguous. The investigators also contend that the only way to determine if an accelerant was used is to conduct laboratory tests on residue from the scene -- something that was not done during the initial police investigation.

John Jackson, the Navarro County District Attorney at the time of Mr. Willingham's trial, is now a state district judge and offered no comment to Mr. Allan Turner, a reporter for The Houston Chronicle. Mr. Jackson had an ethical duty as a prosecutor to seek justice -- that is, a legal duty, not to sentence someone to die for a crime he did not commit. Employing junk science to obtain a conviction is a breach of the Texas Disciplinary Rules of Professional Conduct.

The Texas Forensic Science Committee decided not to hire an investigator to look into the Willingham case at this time but they did ask the State Fire Marshal's Office to prepare a response to The Innocence Project's allegations.

I have little doubt that Mr. Willingham was not the first innocent citizen executed by the Texas death machine -- and he may not be the last. It is time to put an end to state-sanctioned murder because one you've put that needle in the vein, it's too late to say "Oops!"

No comments: