The Cameron Todd Willingham case is an embarrassment to Texas governor Rick Perry and to death penalty proponents everywhere.
Willingham was convicted of intentionally setting the fire that killed his three young daughters in 1991. Willingham was convicted on the strength of forensic expert testimony that the fire was intentionally set. He was executed in 2004 still professing his innocence.
The Texas Forensic Science Commission has been conducting an inquiry into the Willingham case since 2006. When Craig Beyler, a leading fire expert engaged by the Commission, released a report highly critical of the forensic methodology used by Corsicana officials, the Willingham case became a national phenomenon. Beyler concluded his 64-page report with a slashing indictment of the “junk science” on display in Willingham’s trial:
The investigations of the Willis and Willingham fires did not comport with either the modern standard of care expressed by NFPA 921, or the standard of care expressed by fire investigation texts and papers in the period 1980–1992. The investigators had poor understandings of fire science and failed to acknowledge or apply the contemporaneous understanding of the limitations of fire indicators. Their methodologies did not comport with the scientific method or the process of elimination.
Last week, to the surprise of many, the Texas Forensic Science Commission voted to proceed with the case. Governor Perry had moved heaven and earth to avoid this result. After firing several members of the commission, the governor named Williamson County District Attorney John Bradley as the group’s new chairman. Bradley argued that the Corsicana fire marshall could not be faulted in the Willingham case because he was working with the best science available at the time. It was widely anticipated that the Commission and would yield to the inevitable.
It did not. The majority of commissioners wanted to hear testimony from a wide range of experts and it appears they will get their wish. According to a recent story in the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, Travis County Judge Charlie Baird has agreed to proceed with a court of inquiry in Willingham’s case after reviewing a petition filed Friday by lawyers representing Willingham’s relatives.
Judge Baird also presided at the hearing that exonerated Timothy Cole, a Fort Worth native falsely accused of raping a Lubbock woman. Like Willingham, Cole was no longer alive when the evidence in his case was re-examined.
The legal proceeding is scheduled for October 6 and 7 but will be extended if necessary.
Technically, the Baird court of inquiry will not address the guilt or innocence of Cameron Todd Willingham and has no direct bearing on the death penalty debate. The central issue here is the use of junk science in the courtroom.
But it is hardly surprising that death penalty opponents would seize upon this case. Barry Scheck, co-director of the New York-based Innocence Project represents a group of Willingham’s relatives. He will be joined by former governor and Texas attorney general, Mark White. White served as pitchman in a prison-building scam that left Tulia and five other west Texas communities with White Elephant lock-ups that stood empty for years. As Governor, White presided over a couple of dozen executions but now believes the death penalty has outlived its usefulness.
Politicians often undergo ethical conversions after leaving public office. Bill Clinton, the prime architect of American mass incarceration, now says “Most of the people who went to prison should have been let out a long time ago.”
John “Marty” Bradley says limp-wristed death penalty opponents are using the Willingham case to undermine the rule of law. “Judge Baird has been handpicked as a liberal judge who is willing to accept a case over which he has no jurisdiction to provide a well-timed political statement for anti-death penalty advocates,” Bradley told the Star-Telegram via email. “This move by a liberal New York lawyer is consistent with his disregard for the rule of law and the disrespect he has shown for the rulings of numerous state and federal courts that have already reviewed the case and upheld the guilt of Willingham.”
Bradley’s rant misses the point. If “numerous state and federal courts” upheld a conviction based on evidence which has now been discredited, a full airing of the issues is mandatory.