Cameron Todd Willingham (pictured below with his deceased daughter Amber,) was executed in 2004 for setting fire to his home and murdering his three children 13 years earlier. He maintained his innocence to the end, and a new report bolsters his assertions.
National arson expert Craig Beyler just released his report for the Texas Forensic Science Commission, concluding:
The investigators [in Willingham's case] 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.
In other words, the report finds, "A finding of arson could not be sustained."
Beyler's report generated a flurry of commentary and analysis. This must-read investigative report in the upcoming New Yorker details the case against Willingham from the very beginning to the tragic end. A New York Times editorial excorciated the Texas criminal justice system, stating, "it is outrageous that Texas is conducting its careful, highly skilled investigation after Mr. Willingham has been executed, rather than before." Experts at The Innocence Project (who have previously written about the cases of Troy Davis and William Osborne at ACSblog,) urge sweeping revisions in forensic science to ensure that innocent convicts are executed no more.
"So what now?" asks the Innocence Project's Barry Scheck.
Whether our criminal justice system has executed an innocent man should no longer be an open question. We don't know how often it happens, but we know it has happened. Cameron Todd Willingham's case proves that.
The focus turns to how we can stop it from happening again. As long as our system of justice makes mistakes -- including the ultimate mistake -- we cannot continue executing people.