From Staff Reports
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AUSTIN — A review of old Texas arson cases that advocacy groups believe could help in overturning wrongful convictions is expected to produce its first results in January, the Austin American Statesman reported Saturday.
So far, the long-awaited review (http://bit.ly/RjGdFR ) has identified one suspect case and is scrutinizing about 26 others. It is being led by the Innocence Project of Texas, the state arm of a national nonprofit specializing in using DNA evidence to overturn wrongful convictions.
The group is reviewing cases for signs that investigators relied on now-discredited "myths," instead of science, to determine if fires were intentionally set. A panel of fire experts assembled by new Texas Fire Marshal Chris Connealy is scheduled to hear details of the first collection of suspect cases in January, according to the newspaper.
The review was spurred by a 2011 science commission report acknowledging that unreliable science helped lead to Cameron Todd Willingham's conviction for murder by arson. Willingham, a resident of Corsicana, was executed in 2004.
Opponents of the death penalty say Willingham's case suggests Texas executed an innocent man. The science commission's report did not draw any conclusions about Willingham's guilt or innocence. Instead, it gave recommendations for better training fire investigators and a retroactive review of arson convictions, particularly those from before the early 1990s, when scientific studies began shattering many of the myths under which investigators had operated.
For example, "pour patterns" — discolorations or deep burns once believed to be irrefutable proof that an accelerant had been poured on a floor — were found to be common to accidental fires, too.
Connealy is a former Cedar Park fire chief who became the state fire marshal three months ago. He has said he supports the commission's recommendations, particularly the call for better, more consistent training of investigators.
"I can't tell you today that those myths are not alive in certain areas of this state. The only way we can overcome that is with training," Connealy told the Statesman. "Fire investigation is so science-centric, but fire investigators have a limited science background."
The expert panel, set to meet in January, will lead quarterly training sessions to expose fire investigators to the latest scientific advances, Connealy said.
Connealy told the newspaper that his office has begun work on a systematic review of state fire marshal files to identify investigations featuring bad science and that the first step will be prioritizing murder cases. But he noted that his office and its 22 investigators primarily help authorities in rural areas analyze the cause of fires.
Most arson investigations are conducted by city fire departments, and that is why the Innocence Project review of cases is essential to finding possible injustices, he said.
The Innocence Project review began with letters seeking information from more than 1,000 inmates serving prison time for arson. About 175 replies were whittled down to 30 needing more information, Nick Vilbas of the Innocence Project of Texas, told the Statesman.
Information from: Austin American-Statesman, http://www.statesman.com
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