Corsicana Daily Sun, Corsicana, Texas

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August 28, 2010

City defends Willingham report

Innocence allegations motivated by politics, city claims

Corsicana — The City of Corsicana has issued its final response on the Cameron Todd Willingham investigation, at the request of the Texas Forensic Science Commission.

The Willingham case centers around a Corsicana man convicted of killing his three children in a house fire in December 1991. It is a favorite of the anti-death penalty groups because Willingham proclaimed his innocence while he was on death row.

In 2005, the state created a forensics commission to oversee the professionalism of law-enforcement laboratories. At the request of the Innocence Project, the commission agreed to look at the Willingham case.

Corsicana City Attorney Terry Jacobson wrote that the commission doesn’t have the scope to look at the case, since the commission was only formed in 2005 to allow the panel to examine cases still pending, or people in prison as of Sept. 1, 2005. Willingham was tried in 1992 and executed in February 2004. The commission is being used by some people as a forum to advance political agendas, Jacobson said.

With those objections out of the way, however, Jacobson bowed to the inevitable by giving a science-based response. In the 15-page letter to the commission, Jacobson focused on the 2007 report from fire expert Stephen Beyler of Baltimore, who was asked by the commission to look at the case for possible errors. Beyler concluded that the city botched the investigation and alleges that the fire might not have been arson at all.

Last month, the forensics commission said the city did not botch the investigation.

In response, Jacobson points out that the current standards of fire investigation, or even those of 2004, aren’t applicable to a 1991 or 1992 investigation. The standards codified in 1992 weren’t commonly accepted until later.

However, he points out that fire investigators from Corsicana were sent to nine different training courses and seminars in 1991 and 1992, and they would have used the latest information available on the case.

Also in the response, Jacobson makes the following points:

• Gas and electricity were ruled out as the cause, despite what Beyler asserts.

• Beyler suggests the 2-year-old Amber could have started the fire, but Jacobson says that flies in the face of common sense:

“In one of his several materially different stories, Mr. Willingham said that when he went back to bed she was sleeping in the front bedroom. She was later found in his bed even though there was a child’s gate blocking her entrance to and exit from the front bedroom. If she was in the bedroom, how did she crawl over the child’s gate, find the lighters in the kitchen, crawl back over the child’s gate into the bedroom, start the fire in the front bedroom, and then crawl back over the gate, leaving no trace of the lighters? If she wasn’t in the front bedroom to begin with, how did she climb over the gate to get into the front bedroom to start the fire and then get back out? Hypothesizing that a 2-year-old child started the fire simply requires the assumption of too many facts that have no basis in the trial record or investigative reports.

• Assistant Fire Chief Doug Fogg did rule out plastic toys and glue as the cause of the puddle marks on the floor, which Beyler claims was not done. Beyler also said the city didn’t eliminate the possibility of a third party coming into the house and setting it on fire (which was one of Willingham’s explanations for the fire). There was no reason to believe a third party was in the house, Jacobson said.

• Accelerant (such as charcoal starter) was found inside the threshold of the house, but Beyler chalks that up to “grilling activity.” However, the porch slopes down and outward away from the house and there’s a gap between the concrete porch and the wooden threshold, Jacobson said.

“Even if the laws of gravity were suspended on the Willingham front porch, any spilled lighter fluid flowing from the front porch towards the house would have flowed through the gap between the concrete and the doorjamb and poured down the side of the concrete, not into the house. It was reasonable in 1991-92, and should be today, to conclude that a fluid is not able to leap from one surface to another across a half-inch gap.”

• Beyler credits Willingham’s stories, and discounts the investigations by both the fire investigator and the police officers, but Jacobson points out numerous contradictions in Willingham’s stories, including that he fled the fire through the front door, then that he used the back door, then that he kicked out the front door from inside, then that he went out the back and kicked in the front door from outside, that the toddler was in her room, that she came into his room, that she ran away from him, that he told her to get out, that there was a baby gate up, etc.

• Beyler also theorizes that there was a flashover, which caused the children’s toys on the floor, or even the glue under the carpet, to melt and create the puddling patterns on the floor. However, photos of the scene afterwards show cloth hanging from the ceiling, which would have been incinerated if there was a flashover serious enough to melt toys on the floor. As well, the door was open to the hallway and another room, and the windows were broken out before the supposed flashover, which likely would have precluded the kind of build-up of heat necessary for a flashover.

Jacobson also cites a June 18, 2010, opinion from the Texas Supreme Court on another case, but a case upon which Stephen Beyler was also consulted. In that case, the justice criticized Beyler for making conclusions without any evidence, calling his theories of what started that fire “little more than speculation.”

In the Willingham case, Jacobson said, the investigators at least had reasonable explanations for why they ruled out alternative theories of the fire’s origins, such as gas or electrical problems, or a gate-climbing toddler.

The commission is expected to take up the Willingham case for the final time at its October meeting.

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Janet Jacobs may be reached via e-mail at jacobs@corsicanadailysun.com. Want to “sound off” to this article? E-mail: Soundoff@corsicanadailysun.com

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