Long-Awaited Testimony Rejects Arson Conclusion
Forensic Science Commission hears expert testimony on Willingham fire investigation
Fire science expert Craig Beyler told the state's Forensic Science Commission on Jan. 7 that, at best, the cause of the fatal fire in Cameron Todd Willingham's home nearly two decades ago is "undetermined." Furthermore, as time goes by and science improves, the case for the fire to be considered arson "gets less and less, not more and more," he said. The testimony came some 14 months after Beyler was initially scheduled to discuss the 1991 fire that claimed the lives of Willingham's three young children – and resulted in his conviction and execution for arson.
Beyler's conclusions were echoed by John DeHaan, a 40-year fire scientist who has authored and co-authored several seminal fire science textbooks and who previously worked for the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms. DeHaan, one of four witnesses asked to present before the commissioners last week, said that although there was not a "uniform standard of practice" for conducting fire investigations back in 1991, there are still elements of investigation that are universal – such as ruling out other accidental or natural causes for a fire before concluding that arson was to blame. That was not done by the Texas State Fire Marshal's Office, which handled the Willingham investigation. In fact, Beyler told the commission, which is made up predominately of scientists, it appears Deputy Fire Marshal Manuel Vasquez (who has since died) never even looked through the charred debris in the bedroom where the Willingham children died. Instead, that debris was simply "shoveled" out the bedroom window. How could Vasquez determine that arson caused the fire if he never even sifted through all the evidence?
According to Ed Salazar, an assistant fire marshal who spoke to the commission Friday afternoon (after sitting somewhat steely-faced through the morning portion of the meeting with Beyler and DeHaan), Vasquez did rule out other possible causes of the fire – it's just that he didn't record it in his reports. Salazar said that when he began as a lawyer with the office in 1994, he'd noticed the reports were often sparse. But, he suggested, that doesn't mean they're incomplete. There is "no way I can sit here and defend the lack of specificity in these reports," Salazar said. Nonetheless, the investigator in 1991 "followed ... protocol; they followed the practices that were being used at the time."
Indeed, the Fire Marshal's Office told the commission in August that it would stand by its initial determination in the Willingham case, a position that DeHaan said was "dismaying." DeHaan and Beyler are among nearly a dozen fire science experts who have reviewed the state's work in the Willingham case and concluded it relied too much on outdated science, even by 1991 standards.
The Innocence Project asked the Forensic Science Commission to review not only Willingham's case but also that of Ernest Willis. Like Willingham, Willis was convicted of arson and sentenced to die. He was later exonerated, however, based on expert opinion that the investigation was flawed and the arson determination erroneous. Willis was released from prison just months after Willingham was executed. Beyler told commissioners that the state's work in both cases was faulty.
Beyler's meeting with the commission was initially scheduled for October 2009. Just days before the meeting, however, Gov. Rick Perry replaced several commission members – including Sam Bassett, an Austin defense attorney whom the panel had appointed as chair – and installed Williamson County District Attorney John Bradley as the new head of the group. Bradley indefinitely postponed the Beyler meeting and advocated scrapping it altogether, a move that was blocked by the members of the panel who are actually scientists.
That didn't stop Bradley last week from behaving combatively toward Beyler, DeHaan, and even a fellow commissioner, Tarrant County chief medical examiner Nizam Peerwani, as Bradley lobbed softballs at Salazar. In both the tone and the substance of his questions, Bradley seemed intent on agreeing with Salazar that the state's success or failure in investigating the Willingham fire is little more than a matter of personal judgment. Whether his fellow commissioners will agree – and what will happen next in the review of the Willingham case – remains to be seen.