Nine years ago Cameron Todd Willingham was executed in Texas after being convicted of killing his three children in a fire. Whether or not the tragic fire was a crime or an accident has been a haunting question in light of alternative explanations for the burn patterns once believed to be proof of the use of an accelerant. According to an Associated Press press in the Baylor Lariat (here), next month an ongoing collaboration of the Texas state fire marshall and the Innocence Project of Texas will proceed to it’s next task: reviewing the first six cases of arson conviction that have been identified as potentially problematic due to their dependance on questionable science.
Jeff Blackburn, founder and chief counsel for the Innocence Project of Texas indicated in the article that 1,000 cases have been reviewed and 60 remain on the list for potential closer examination.
The science that convicted Willingham and many others has been questioned or debunked by many experts, who have noted that for years arson forensic science lacked uniform science-based standards, procedures, and understandings. The review comes none too soon for Edward Graf, whose case is among the first six to be reviewed. According to the report, he has been in prison for 25 years for a fire that killed his two stepsons.
Todd Willingham was unwavering in his claim of innocence, and the case attracted national attention. It was investigated by the Texas Forensic Science Commission, but no final report was released. This article notes that “Arson experts hired by the commission found that the 1991 fire was most likely accidental.”
For those who may have been wrongfully convicted of arson, the Willingham case (and the national interest in arson forensics that it prompted) is providing delayed hope for potentially life-changing reconsideration.