Science

Experts Denounce Forensic Evidence in Texas Death Penalty Case

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A disturbing new report casts doubt on a recent execution in Texas.

In a withering critique, a nationally known fire scientist has told a state commission on forensics that Texas fire investigators had no basis to rule a deadly house fire was an arson—a finding that led to the murder conviction and execution of Cameron Todd Willingham.

The finding comes in the first state-sanctioned review of an execution in Texas, home to the country's busiest death chamber. If the commission reaches the same conclusion, it could lead to the first-ever declaration by an official state body that an inmate was wrongly executed.

Indeed, the report concludes there was no evidence to determine that the December 1991 fire was even set, and it leaves open the possibility the blaze that killed three children was an accident and there was no crime at all—the same findings found in a Chicago Tribune investigation of the case published in December 2004.

Willingham, the father of those children, was executed in February 2004. He protested his innocence to the end…

Among Beyler's key findings: that investigators failed to examine all of the electrical outlets and appliances in the Willinghams' house in the small Texas town of Corsicana, did not consider other potential causes for the fire, came to conclusions that contradicted witnesses at the scene, and wrongly concluded Willingham's injuries could not have been caused as he said they were.

The state fire marshal on the case, Beyler concluded in his report, had "limited understanding" of fire science. The fire marshal "seems to be wholly without any realistic understanding of fires and how fire injuries are created," he wrote.

The marshal's findings, he added, "are nothing more than a collection of personal beliefs that have nothing to do with science-based fire investigation."

Beyler is the ninth forensic arson specialist to review the case. The other eight came to similar conclusions. The other major piece of evidence against Willingham was the testimony of a jailhouse informant who claimed Willingham confessed to him. Jailhouse snitch testimony tends to be a pretty common second piece of evidence in these stories. Funny how that works.

Willingham isn't the most sympathetic figure. He was a career criminal, and at his trial witnesses testified to a number of disturbing statements and incidents, including one witness who said Willingham once beat his pregnant wife in an effort to cause a miscarriage.

Death penalty opponents have cast this latest report as proof that Texas executed an innocent man (I should note that after reading initial accounts of the report, I cast the case in a similar light on my Twitter feed). Upon reflection, I think a more accurate characterization would be to say that Texas executed a man who should never have been convicted. The Tribune's description of the latest report doesn't say the fire wasn't caused by arson, it says there wasn't enough evidence to conclusively say that it was, and that investigators failed to consider other causes.

None of which makes Willigham's conviction and execution any less disturbing. His case is merely the latest example of the damage done by junk forensics that should never have been allowed in the courtroom—and of the failure of both the trial judge and the appeals courts in allowing it to stand.

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  1. Incidents like the one in Radley’s story led to a change in my position on the death penalty about 10 or 11 years ago. Given the number of cases where people on death row have been let free after a review of their case, I don’t think I’m wrong in believing that innocent people have been put to death.

  2. He was a career criminal, and at his trial witnesses testified to a number of disturbing statements and incidents, including one witness who said Willingham once beat his pregnant wife in an effort to cause a miscarriage.

    If you want to try him for being a rotten guy, try him for being a rotten guy; don’t try him for arson, and rest your prosecution on the basis of, “He was such a rotten guy, he undoubtedly burned that house down.”

  3. Yeah, I’m against the death penalty for two reasons:
    1) can you ever really be 100% certain
    2) the government shouldn’t have that kind of power anyway

    Also, it’s really upsetting how much of this forensic nonsense is people who really don’t know much about anything scientific with a clear bias towards getting convictions, and how often snitches (also with seriously biased interests) and “anonymous informants” are used to initiate or justify police activity.

  4. We should give Texas to Mexico.

  5. I heard that after the fire, he was seen drinking tea and smoking cigarettes.

  6. Under 404(b) the wife-beating should have never been admitted into evidence. It illustrates that a horrible judge presided over his trial and probably ruled against the defense throughout regardless of the validity of their objections and arguments for admitting evidence.

  7. I can’t believe you’d do this to the victim’s families. Don’t they deserve some closure here?

  8. So he was guilty, but not of the crime for which he was convicted. I’m supposed to be concerned for him?

  9. I’m supposed to be concerned for him?

    Perhaps not, but you should be concerned as fuck about a criminal justice system that allows, even sanctions, this kind of railroading.

  10. George,

    You should be concerned that we live under a system that sends people to the death chamber on dubious evidence.

    I can’t believe that jailhouse snitch testimony is allowed, given all of the incentives facing a jailhouse informant. Yeah, I guess an informant inside a criminal gang has somewhat similar incentives, but the power relationships seem a bit different, and make me more skeptical.

  11. “So he was guilty, but not of the crime for which he was convicted. I’m supposed to be concerned for him?”

    Guilty of what? Which crimes (that he didn’t already serve his sentence for) were proven beyond a reasonable doubt? If a man is executed, shouldn’t it be for an actual crime?

  12. He was a career criminal . . .

    His removal from society was a benefit to all.

  13. I have to agree with Joe M and mr. chartreuse on this. I don’t disagree with death as a punishment. I just think the justice system is too imperfect to make the decision as to who dies.

  14. Junk forensics or incompetent human?

    I guess George doesn’t live in Texas, because they execute retarded people.

  15. “We should give Texas to Mexico.”

    Be patient…

  16. Brotherben, I agee. I simply don’t trust government to do the right thing.

    What we need is a law that holds accountable the person signing the execution order. That will never happen.

  17. They should have just waterboarded him, and slammed his head on the floor until he confessed. Then we’d know for sure.

    Right, George?

  18. I have no moral objections to the death penalty. I celebrated Ceau?escu’s execution for example. I just don’t trust a government that can’t deliver the mail or collect the trash with the power to take a person’s life.

  19. Sometimes bad people get what they have coming to them even if it comes along a back channel.

  20. “Sometimes bad people get what they have coming to them even if it comes along a back channel.”

    That’s what jail is for. Wait, what do you mean by “back channel”?

  21. what do you mean by “back channel”?

    Fate, Karma, take your pick.

  22. I can’t believe you’d do this to the victim’s families.

    I’d be stunned if they care who got railroaded, as long as somebody did. Victims’ families have just as little interest as prosecutors do in getting the right guy (unless coincidentally it’s someone they already hate, i.e., a guy who fucked or wanted to fuck their daughter). Any guy is “closure.”

  23. Here’s the problem. It’s not against the law for an agent of the state to kill an innocent person under the color of duty.

    Cops have gotten away with killing people because they thought they heard the word gun, or thought a gun was pointed at them when it was something else, like a candy bar. They can kill a little house dog because they are scared the little bity dog will seriously hurt them. People let it slide all the time. I expect a lot of people to have George’s point of view.

  24. “His removal from society was a benefit to all.”

    His “removal from society” was a neutral event for 99.99999% of Texans.

  25. I can’t believe you’d do this to the victim’s families.

    (!)

    Willingham, the father of those children, was executed in February 2004.

    I kan haz reedin skilz?

  26. His “removal from society” was a neutral event for 99.99999% of Texans.

    Not neutral for his past and future victims.

  27. Yay! We get the first verifiable case of executing a guy who wasn’t guilty! What do we win?

    I’m guessing the prize is a lawsuit, superficial reform, and nothing that will amount to actual change. We like to execute people down here.

  28. “””Fate, Karma, take your pick.”””

    It’s could be said that the above are actions of god. I guess you have no problem with the government acting as god. I bet you love Obama’s health care plan.

  29. considering that the victims of the fire were his own children, i don’t really see how exonerating this man of their deaths would hurt the family. if anything, knowing that a father did NOT kill his children would be better news to the family.
    this guy may have been a scumbag but he did not deserve to be murdered by the state.

    closure is psychobabble bullshit and has no place in the justice system.

  30. It’s could be said that the above are actions of god. I guess you have no problem with the government acting as god.

    We all work for or against god. You reap what you sow.

    I bet you love Obama’s health care plan.

    BHO’s health plan is a travesty.

  31. “Not neutral for his past and future victims.”

    The same could be said of you. Me. Anybody really.

  32. The same could be said of you.

    I am not a career criminal. Are you?

  33. Not neutral for his past and future victims.

    George, it is this statement of yours that is truly scary. Put to death for the sake of his FUTURE victims? wow

  34. His removal from society was a benefit to all.

    Some may argue that putting a bullet in your head would be a “benefit to all”. Does that make it right?

  35. Put to death for the sake of his FUTURE victims? wow

    Well, once our psychics identify him as a future offender, we could just put him in suspended animation to avoid his future crimes. What could possibly be wrong with this approach? Tom Cruise agreed with it!

    I still want that wall screen with the gestural interface.

  36. so George, should all career criminals be put do death, to prevent these future crimes from happening?

  37. Put to death for the sake of his FUTURE victims?

    This is the only valid purpose of a death penalty. It’s not like death leads to rehabilitation, unless you’re one of those oddballs that believe in reincarnation.

  38. T – i’ve seen some DIY setups built with Wii-motes. the future is almost here… wait for it… wait for it… now!

  39. so George, should all career criminals be put do death,

    The mentally ill should be institutionallized so they can’t do harm to themselves or others.

    Evil people on the other hand . . .

    I don’t see any significant reason why society should pay to put them in a warehouse to prevent them from continuing to harm others.

  40. No George. The death penalty is the ultimate punishment for a crime that has already occured. It is also supposed to deter other potential criminals from committing capital crimes. It has nothing to do with preventing future crimes. A true life sentence can do the exact same thing.

  41. George, what is the dividing line between mentally ill and Evil?

  42. The death penalty is the ultimate punishment for a crime that has already occured.

    If you want punishment, we can go back to hanging, drawing, and quartering.

  43. George, what is the dividing line between mentally ill and Evil?

    Twelve jurors.

  44. Dear George,

    Vengeance is Mine

    yrs trly,

    God

  45. Yes George. Because those things weren’t forms of execution…therefore the death penalty.

    And you’re willing to put people’s lives in the balance with twelve jurors when on these pages alone, there have been a lot of documented cases of innocent people convicted?

    Someone can be labeled “evil” by a jury and be innocent of all charges.


  46. If you want to try him for being a rotten guy, try him for being a rotten guy; don’t try him for arson, and rest your prosecution on the basis of, “He was such a rotten guy, he undoubtedly burned that house down.”

    Or try him for tax evasion!!! wait what?

  47. And you’re willing to put people’s lives in the balance with twelve jurors when on these pages alone, there have been a lot of documented cases of innocent people convicted?

    Jail/prison doesn’t work. It just turns one-time offenders into career criminals.

    The system needs to be reorganized to focus on restitution & rehabiliation for first-time offenders.

    Repeat offenders need to be removed from society. People that can’t learn to behave properly because of mental limitations should be segregated from society. That just leaves the problem of people that won’t behave properly because the choose not to . . . .

  48. the facts of the case are unimportant, it is the life that the accused has lived that matters most, right George?
    He didn’t start the fire? Who cares! He once killed a puppy and stole condoms from a pharmacy. This man is surely going to be a detriment to society in the future. Therefore we sentence him to death!

  49. The state shouldn’t be in the business of killing its citizens.

  50. He once killed a puppy and stole condoms from a pharmacy.

    A man that beats a pregnant women is of no value to society.

  51. Say, i bet twelve of us regulars could get together and declare ol’ George here to be “evil.” Whaddaya say?

  52. “””We all work for or against god. You reap what you sow.”””

    Or not. This guy didn’t commit the crime for which he was executed. So you are really perverting the reap/sow idea.

    As far as God goes, leave God’s judgement of man to God.

  53. George smells like a troll.

  54. “””A man that beats a pregnant women is of no value to society.”””

    Really? What if he rescues children from a burning building after he beat her?

    Why do you want those children to die?

  55. George smells like a troll.

    Just because you don’t like my opinion?

  56. nipplemancer, I went to that pharmacy and they were out of condoms because of his theft resulting in me knockin up eleven differnt women. (and one sheep) He truly was an evil bastard.

  57. George, don’t change the subject. We’re talking about the death penalty and killing a man who should never have been convicted. You’re OK with this because he was a “career” criminal, despite the fact that in this case he did nothing wrong?

  58. brotherben – while highly discouraged, i wouldn’t say that spreading your genes should be a crime.

  59. You’re OK with this because he was a “career” criminal, despite the fact that in this case he did nothing wrong?

    I won’t grieve for him.

  60. “””Just because you don’t like my opinion?””

    No, because you opinion is so uneducated that it’s easy to dismiss it as trolling.

  61. For some reason, the thugs who killed Pedro Navarro-Oregon while breaking into his home to look for drugs remain free, despite the fact that they admitted doing it.

    Incidents like the one in Radley’s story led to a change in my position on the death penalty about 10 or 11 years ago. Given the number of cases where people on death row have been let free after a review of their case, I don’t think I’m wrong in believing that innocent people have been put to death.

    Innocent people being put to death is no more tragic than innocent people being roasted alive in Tokyo and Dresden.

    the government shouldn’t have that kind of power anyway

    Perhaps, but private lynch mobs are even less deserving of this power.

    Victims’ families have just as little interest as prosecutors do in getting the right guy

    How so?

    Has the family of any victim dismissed exonerating DNA evidence?

    Here’s the problem. It’s not against the law for an agent of the state to kill an innocent person under the color of duty.

    Very good point.

    Has there ever been a wrongful death lawsuit against the government for any reason?

  62. I think that the focus of this article demonstates the manner in which any crank theory can get a hearing recently. That it may tie with the political needs of a particular State is another thing.

    But I think that the death penalty itself should not be opposed simply because ‘innocent’ people can get caught in it. I think that the recognition that these are human beings capable of reform, and not mad dogs, should be our guide to deciding our approach to the death penalty.

    Any nation that tolerates the death penalty has a very low opinion of humanity.

  63. Just because you don’t like my opinion?

    No, because you’re calming and repeatedly stating that it’s okay to execute someone for a crime they may not have committed, just because they committed other crimes. It’s an unimaginably monstrous position to take, so I guess I was just engaged in wishful thinking.

  64. Any nation that tolerates the death penalty has a very low opinion of humanity.

    Because we all know that extraterrestrials did the Holocaust and the Rape of Nanking, right ?

  65. George, I didn’t ask if you would “grieve” for him. I asked if it was OK with you that a man was executed, even if he didn’t actually commit a crime in this instance. From everything you’ve said, you seem to think so.

    Now, say that this was a man with no criminal past to speak of. Speeding tickets, but nothing major. And this same set of circumstances came up. Would you still be OK with it?

  66. I asked if it was OK with you that a man was executed, even if he didn’t actually commit a crime in this instance.

    Upon reflection, I think a more accurate characterization would be to say that Texas executed a man who should never have been convicted.

    Multiple studies have shown that the investigators were sloppy and assumed their conclusions. The studies did not exonerate Mr. Willingham.

  67. Nice dodge.

    Now, answer my question.

    Are you OK with his execution even if he didn’t do anything wrong?

    Notice the key word there, the “if”? Now, try and answer the question.

  68. Leon Czolgosz was quickly executed after he murdered William McKinley.

    Why are not executions so swift anymore?

  69. Oh yeah, the studies can’t exonerate Willingham because for one the evidence is now gone. There is no intact crime scene to be looked at to further investigate.

    Of course, you’re arguing that an absence of evidence proving him innocent of this charge means he’s still guilty, aren’t you?

  70. Will the Defendant please rise?

    In the matter of Hit & Run v. George, how doe the jury find?

    We the Jury find that George is guilty of crimes to be committed in the future. The sentence is death by hatefucking. Sentence to be carried out at sundown.

  71. Notice the key word there, the “if”? Now, try and answer the question.

    The “if” is not relevant. Mr. Willingham was in fact a career criminal and I am unconcerned that Texas moved him forward to his final judgement.

    But yes, I would be saddened if a truly innocent person was caught up in the wheels of justice and executed.

  72. “The studies did not exonerate Mr. Willingham.”

    The studies concluded that the fire was not arson. How does that not exonerate him?

  73. Then you’re as bad, if not worse that Willingham.

  74. Indeed, the report concludes there was no evidence to determine that the December 1991 fire was even set, and it leaves open the possibility the blaze that killed three children was an accident and there was no crime at all . . .

    The study says the fire marshall was incompetent and documented no basis for ruling arson. But, as TomCat notes, there is no evidence left to prove one way or the other at this time.

  75. And George doesn’t care about guilt anyways. Willingham was a “bad guy” so he deserved to die anyways. Heaven forbid that it HAD been arson and the guilty person wasn’t found because of the improper investigation, or that he had reached some kind of epiphany shortly before the fire and was trying to change his wicked ways. That doesn’t matter.

    What matters is that the “evil” are destroyed quickly and efficiently.

  76. No basis for ruling arson? OK. So it probably was, and its good they killed him. After all, there was no basis to conclude the man committed arson. “No basis” is a good a reason as any to kill a man, I s’pose.

  77. Mr. Willingham was a bad man who may or may not have murdered his childern.

    The system broke down and he was convicted on bad testimony. I don’t like the fact that the system broke; I would certainly hope this leads to improvements in the system.

    But to repeat, I am unconcerned that Mr. Willingham is no longer with us.

  78. So a man is dead based on a faulty investigation and you’re “unconcerned”?

    You are a special, special person George.

  79. George, is your real name Light Yagami?

    This is the reason I’m against the death penalty. Mr. Willingham was not a nice person. But we’re not in the business of punishing pre-crime, at least not yet.

  80. Light Yagami — sorry I don’t catch the meaning.

  81. “Mr. Willingham was a bad man who may or may not have murdered his children.”

    According to the bible, we are all bad men who may or may not have murdered our children.

  82. George W. Bush is a bad man who may or may not have murdered thousands of people.

  83. Lyndon Johnson was a bad man who may or may not have murdered hundreds of thousands of people.

  84. This whole thread has turned into George justifying the death penalty for cumulative non-capital offenses, some criminal, some that just make him “bad”. Despite no evidence that he torched his house, George believes Willingham deserved to die…..regardless of whether Willingham could prove his arson innocence or not. So it really doesn’t matter whether the arson case was bogus. George and his ilk are merely looking for a …. pretext.

  85. “””The study says the fire marshall was incompetent and documented no basis for ruling arson. But, as TomCat notes, there is no evidence left to prove one way or the other at this time.”””

    If there is no basis for arson, how is there a basis convicting someone for that which has no basis?

    That’s why people think your a troll.

  86. Yes, George. You have admitted that there was no basis for the arson charge.

    And yet you decide to err on the side of FUCKING ENDING A PERSON’S LIFE!

    I think there are crimes that warrant the death penalty. If someone raped my (non-existent) daughter, I would kill the fucker so I could tell her that daddy took care of it.

    Scientist: I’ve concluded that there is no basis on the arson claim. I can’t find any evidence at all for this being anything other than an accidental fire.

    George: But he’s a really bad guy, doc.

    Scientist: He may well be. But this isn’t arson.

    George: Fuck it. We’ll kill him anyway.

    Oh, you’re so cute!

  87. Sometimes bad people get what they have coming to them even if it comes along a back channel.

    I hope that’s true, because if it is you should have a safe drop on your fucking head any dead now.

  88. “I hope that’s true, because if it is you should have a safe drop on your fucking head any dead now.”

    Isn’t this someone’s law? I can’t keep them straight.

  89. As usual… I’ll probably be the last person to post… call me the threadkiller… herewego:

    Is someone’s 12 year old little brother pissy again becasue older brother was busy reading hit n run instead of playing catch? Well, he’s on the other computer in your house trolling the forums as revenge.

    Death penalty for a bad, but probably innocent in this case, man. The sheer idiocy of this line of thinking screams troll. Or facist. Or both. Either way George, people like you won’t make it through the next revolution. You receive a grade of: EPIC FAIL in the prequalification process. Thank you for trying. Sorry, no “do-overs.”

  90. Dear ev, there is a difference between present tense and past tense.

    Scientist: I have concluded that the fire marshal was an idiot and Mr. Willingham should not have been convicted.

    George: Woops, no harm, no foul.

    Is that callous enough?

  91. Yep, no harm, no foul.

    Just tell Mr. Willingham that everything’s cool now.

  92. Either way George, people like you won’t make it through the next revolution.

    Such animosity.

    By the way, you are off by two score and a few.

  93. George, I couldn’t help but notice that you ignored my 10:13am post. Could you humor me? I’m vain like that.

  94. Yes I did Lamar. And no.

  95. George – that was rhetorical.

  96. With my afternoon Earl Grey, I don’t like biscuits. I prefer a T-Roll.

  97. Even if he hadn’t been executed, he would still have spent 20 years in prison and been an old man upon his release. True, it’s better to merely have your life utterly ruined than to be dead, but the problem here is not so much with the death penalty as the trial system itself.

    I’m not willing to give up the social and economic benefits of good and just executions just so we can feel better about our justice system.

  98. Bingo Tulpa. If you send an innocent man to jail for 20 years,you’ve ruined his life anyway. Getting rid of the death penalty won’t get rid of wrongful convictions.

    When we have real life sentences that can’t be pardoned, cancelled for good behavior, or cancelled because the jails are too crowded, them I’m willing to talk about getting rid of the death penalty.

  99. Good points. I would say if you eliminate the death penalty, you at least have a chance of, eventually, some day, overturning a wrongful conviction. If you kill the guy, that’s the end of it. If he’s only served five of his twenty years, hey, he gets fifteen years back. The justice system can be improved, but it can’t perform resurrections.

  100. I think we currently have a justice system that has inappropriate incentives. Win rates and such are pushed hard, while very little oversight is done to ensure justice is served.

    Theoretically, prosecutors aren’t supposed to just be criminal trial lawyers, but actually charged with finding justice. Without oversight and proper incentives, this inevitably leads to wrongful convictions. Not that juries haven’t helped by completely forgetting about things such as innocent until proven guilty and beyond a reasonable doubt.

    Either way – for the death penalty. What if we changed the standard? IE – beyond a reasonable doubt, convicted – to be killed, beyond all doubt.

    So if you have 15 bodies buried in the basement with physical evidence tying someone to the crimes or a video of some asshole killing a convenience store clerk – kill them.

    If it’s just, “probably likely” then don’t.

    I also think professional juries should be sought out for complex civil trials, like drug company lawsuits or medical malpractice or if an engineer is charged with a faulty building that fell – these things become complex enough that only people with experience would have a good idea of whether an innocent mistake happened or it was real negligence or possibly even on purpose – IE cutting corners for more profit.

    But I digress, I just see the criminal system and the civil system as needing as much overhaul as the health care system.

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