Monthly Archives: October 2009

The Cameron Todd Willingham case: a Moneyball moment for forensics

Anyone with a passing interest in capital punishment or notions of justice should tune in to the saga of Cameron Todd Willingham, a Texas man convicted in 1992 of murdering his three daughters by arson and executed in 2004. The New Yorker’s David Grann renewed attention to the case in September with a powerful, stomach-churning story detailing the flaws in the arson investigators’ evidence that led to the execution of a man who may have been innocent. (The Chicago Tribune was on the case first, in 2004.)

Grann reported that a Texas commision investigating allegations of forensic misconduct is nearing completion of one of its first case reviews — on Willingham. But at the end of September, Texas Gov. Rick Perry replaced three commission members, including the chairman, who says Perry’s lawyers had pressured him about the case. The new chairman then canceled a hearing that would have included testimony from a fire scientist whose report for the commission concluded, according to Grann, “that investigators in the Willingham case had no scientific basis for claiming that the fire was arson, ignored evidence that contradicted their theory … relied on discredited folklore, and failed to eliminate potential accidental or alternative causes of the fire.”

Perry has already played a major role in the case. He was governor in 2004, when another fire expert concluded the arson evidence used against Willingham was “junk science.” Perry and the state board that reviews clemency applications both apparently ignored that expert’s last-minute report, and Willingham was executed. On Tuesday, the Houston Chronicle and parent company Hearst Newspapers sued Perry “to force the release of a clemency report Perry received before denying a stay of execution” to Willingham.

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