From the reporting on the Forensic Commission’s final report on the Willingham case, reading between the lines it’s obvious, that the Willingham investigation was flawed, if not completely incorrect. If the original investigation was factual, then why so many recommendations on how to actually “fix” fire investigations in Texas, based off of the Willingham case? Exactly.
Here’s what Grits had to say about the report, Punting: Forensic Science Commission fails to answer on misconduct, negligence in Willingham fire investigation.
In what is likely John Bradley’s last hurrah as Forensic Science Commission chair (he reportedly cannot secure Senate confirmation), the Williamson County DA convinced the commission to issue a draft report making no finding on the central question it convened hearings and an expensive report from an expert to address: Whether there was negligence or misconduct by fire investigators in the Todd Willingham arson case?
Regular readers will recall that nationally renowned fire experts told the Forensic Science Commission that investigators at the Willingham arson case were negligent for not following even best practices of the day, as well as utilizing erroneous arson indicators that have since been debunked by modern science. Further, the state fire marshal’s office flat out embarrassed itself with a legalistic defense of unscientific methods and outdated practices. Given the expert testimony, it’s no wonder Mr. Bradley wanted to avoid as long as possible drawing conclusions regarding the negligence of investigators: If they do draw one, it will likely be to find negligence since no actual arson experts were willing to defend the Willingham investigators. So issuing no decision is the only way for Bradley to kick the can down the road, hoping the Attorney General will squelch the investigation after he’s gone by throwing one of his lawyers under the bus.
Of course Bradley’s job was political, and has long since been done.
More from Dave Mann at the Texas Observer, A Nebulous End to the Willingham Inquiry.
The commission’s nearly 50-page report—the product of a high-profile, frequently stalled investigation—is an odd mix. It documents at length the flawed state of fire investigation in Texas and details in general terms the kinds of outdated evidence that led to Willingham’s 1992 conviction for starting the house fire that killed his three daughters and eventually led to his 2004 execution. In that sense, it confirms the opinions of nine national experts who have examined the case and found no evidence of arson.
The report also makes 17 recommendations on how to improve the level of fire investigation in Texas. And, most importantly, it urges the Texas Fire Marshal’s Office to reexamine older arson cases for similar flaws.
Yet for all its documentation of general problems with arson evidence, the report rarely connects these flaws directly to the Willingham case. In fact, the report sidesteps two of the central questions: Were the original fire investigators on the Willingham case negligent and did the Fire Marshal’s office have a duty to inform the governor or the courts prior to Willingham’s 2004 execution that the evidence in the case was no longer reliable?
Kuff had this to say about the report.
Unfortunately, the FSC doesn’t have the power to do more than urge the Fire Marshall to act, and there’s still an inquiry into the AG’s office to determine just what authority the Commission has. That will be John Bradley’s parting shot. This probably was the best report we could have gotten given Bradley’s endless meddling. Maybe with the Willingham matter more or less settled and no election looming, Rick Perry will appoint someone less egregious as Bradley’s replacement. Yeah, yeah, I know.
The best thing to come out of the report is that Willingham’s family has taken solace from it.