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Texas arson probe review steers clear of conclusions on execution

By Ed Lavandera, CNN
Cameron Todd Willingham, shown with his then-wife, Stacy Kuykendall, and their daughters, was executed in 2004.
Cameron Todd Willingham, shown with his then-wife, Stacy Kuykendall, and their daughters, was executed in 2004.
  • Texas commission issues report on its review of a high-profile arson probe
  • Cameron Todd Willingham was put to death in 2004 for a fire that killed his children
  • The report does not address whether arson investigators did their job correctly
  • Opponents of capital punishment argue that Texas killed an innocent man

Dallas (CNN) -- A highly anticipated state report reviewing the arson investigation that led to the execution of Cameron Todd Willingham offers no conclusions on whether the Texas man should have been put to death.

The report makes a series of recommendations on how to "encourage the development of forensic science in Texas" but does not address the central question of whether there was negligence or professional misconduct in the Willingham arson investigation.

"In light of the jurisdictional issues and related litigation concerns, the Commission declines to issue any finding regarding any negligence or professional misconduct," the report from the Texas Forensic Science Commission states.

The controversy over Willingham's execution erupted after high-profile arson experts strongly criticized faulty forensic science in the investigation that led to his conviction.

Death penalty opponents, among them the Innocence Project, argue that Texas killed an innocent man when Willingham was executed in 2004. He was convicted of deliberately setting his Corsicana, Texas, home on fire in 1991 to kill his three young children who were sleeping inside.

In his final statement from the Texas death chamber, Willingham insisted he was innocent.

In the newly released, 47-page draft report, the commission goes to great lengths to explain how arson investigations have evolved in the past two decades, and why going back in time to accurately determine Willingham's guilt or innocence is not the mission of its report.

"The Willingham case has posed a particular challenge due to the controversy surrounding the death penalty," the report states. "The substantial passage of time, limited record and the unavailability of at least one of the original fire investigators all add to the difficulty of conducting a thorough review."

In January, the commission heard from several of arson experts critical of the Willingham investigation: Craig Beyler, a Maryland-based fire science expert, and John DeHaan, a California-based author of a leading arson investigation book.

Beyler has said that the original arson ruling in the Willingham murder case "could not be substantiated" either by modern science or by modern-day standards.

"By their acknowledgment, child fire setting, somebody else coming in and setting the fire, are things they acknowledge were not ruled out," he said. "And in this case they shoveled out the bedroom in the Willingham case before examining the electrical evidence, so you can't rule that out as a cause."

And DeHaan told the commission that arson investigators "relied on investigative methods and indicators that have been shown to be unreliable."

The Innocence Project criticized the report and the chairman of the commission, John Bradley, a political appointee of Texas Gov. Rick Perry.

"The report glosses over a lot of key facts," said Stephen Saloom of the Innocence Project, who attended Thursday's hearing in Austin. "The chairman has done everything in his power to muzzle this commission."

Saloom argues that the fire marshal who investigated the Willingham murder case was negligent.

Bradley says the report did not address the central question of whether faulty science was used in the Willingham case because the commission is awaiting a ruling from the Texas Attorney General's office to determine whether it has jurisdiction to make such a determination.

The Forensic Science Commission's work has also been criticized in Texas political circles. Willingham was executed under Perry's watch. The governor has long argued that all the evidence in the case proved Willingham was guilty.

In 2009, Perry removed the head of the commission and installed Bradley, a district attorney from a highly conservative county near Austin.

Critics charged the move was made for political motives and that Bradley would not be impartial and objective in his work. Those criticisms erupted again when tempers flared during one of the commission's meetings in October and Bradley described Willingham as a "guilty monster."

Bradley has defended his work with the commission and criticized the Innocence Project for using the Willingham case to push its anti-death-penalty agenda. Bradley also said this second-guessing is a slippery slope.

"Looking back at people with a lack of information can be dangerous," Bradley said.