Commission Jerks Bradley's Chain

Chairman loses bid to close arson case on Cameron Todd Willingham

Commission Jerks Bradley's Chain
Illustration by Jason Stout

John Bradley's bid to put to bed the case of Cameron Todd Willingham was shot down Sept. 17 by his fellow members of the state's Forensic Science Commis­sion, which has been considering whether junk science was used to convict Willingham of arson-murder in connection with the 1991 deaths of his three children in a house fire in Corsicana. Willingham protested his innocence until his death, by execution, in 2004.

The question was first brought to the commission in 2006 by the New York-based Innocence Project. Last year, just before the commission was set to examine the findings of Maryland-based fire expert Craig Beyler, who cited problems with the science used to convict Willingham, Gov. Rick Perry intervened, replacing several members of the commission, including Austin defense attorney and commission Chair Samuel Bassett. Perry named Bradley, Williamson County district attorney, to head the commission.

Bradley's tenure on the panel has been controversial, at best. He broke the group into small committees (small enough to avoid a quorum and open meetings requirements) to investigate and review various complaints – including the Willingham matter. He also scrapped the planned live testimony by Beyler.

And under Bradley's direction, the group was set to consider closing the book on the Willingham case last week. But after considering a draft report penned by Bradley – which concluded that the original investigators "did not commit professional negligence or misconduct" and that they had "applied the standard of practice, as best as it can be reconstructed, for Texas fire investigators as that standard existed at the time of the investigation and trial" – the commissioners declined to approve the report, saying instead it would be better to keep the inquiry alive and to have the various fire experts come before the panel to answer specific questions about whether the science used in the Willingham case was solid.

Bradley didn't care for that idea, retorting that if the other members wanted to "waste another meeting" pursuing answers, they were free to do so. That's what they've opted to do, in part to pursue the question of whether the investigators in 1991 knew (or should have known) that the science used to conclude the fire was deliberately set was false. (In an Aug. 20 letter to the commission, Fire Marshal Paul Maldonado wrote that he stood by his office's original conclusions in the case.)

That inquiry – which in a way pushes the commission work back to where it was going just before Bradley took over as chair – might help to answer several larger questions that remain. Indeed, in a letter to the commission dated Sept. 13, state Sens. Rodney Ellis, D-Houston, and Juan "Chuy" Hinojosa, D-McAllen, noted that the investigation to that point had been "ignoring a critical part of the complaint," which is whether the fire marshal's office might have committed "professional negligence or misconduct if it failed to inform the courts, prosecutors, the Board of Pardons and Parole, and the Governor that flawed arson science may have been used to convict hundreds or thousands" of other defendants also charged with arson crimes. According to Ellis and Hinojosa, more than 700 people are currently serving time in Texas prisons for arson crimes.

The commission is slated to question the fire scientists at a meeting later this fall.

See Bradley's draft report here.

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Forensic Science Commission, FSC, Cameron Todd Willingham, John Bradley, junk science, Rick Perry, wrongful conviction, Craig Beyler, state fire marshal's office

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