By Will Weissert
A Texas commission no longer allowed to investigate a case where death penalty opponents say a man may have been executed based on a faulty arson investigation recommended Friday that all cases involving people locked up on arson convictions be reviewed.
The reviews were among 17 recommendations for improving arson inquiries approved by the Texas Forensic Science Commission. The State Fire Marshall's Office has agreed to scrutinize forensics in cases where determinations that fires were deliberately set led to an arson conviction or a murder by arson conviction.
The Innocence Project of Texas, the state arm of a national non-profit that specializes in using DNA evidence to overturn wrongful convictions, will help identify cases for review by providing written surveys to prisoners. State officials also will examine death certificates to ensure qualifying murder cases are identified — since some that involve fires don't list arson as the official cause of death.
Jeff Blackburn, the Innocence Project of Texas' chief attorney, said priority will be given to Texas death row inmates. How many prisoners could have their cases reviewed is unclear, but just looking at arson convictions could involve 750 to 900 cases.
The eight-member panel made its recommendations after the state attorney general limited the scope of its investigation in the case of Cameron Todd Willingham, who was put to death in 2004 for setting a 1991 fire that killed his three children. Arson experts hired by the forensic commission determined the evidence used to convict Willingham didn't meet modern scientific standards and the fire was most likely accidental.
The commission took up Willingham's case after the New York-based Innocence Project filed a complaint in 2007. It couldn't have overturned his conviction but might have determined whether evidence was collected and analyzed properly, supplying grounds for an appeal if it wasn't.
But a ruling by Attorney General Greg Abbott issued in July limited the scope of the inquiry, and the panel said Friday it "declines to issue any finding regarding alleged misconduct or negligence by" the State Fire Marshall's Office or the City of Cosicana, where Willingham and his family lived.
The attorney general's opinion was issued at the request of John Bradley, who Gov. Rick Perry nominated as commission chairman. The Texas Senate refused to confirm Bradley after he told the media that Willingham was "a guilty monster."
The case could be an election issue for Perry, who is running for president. Even before the execution, Willingham's attorneys sent letters to the governor's office arguing the evidence needed to be reviewed using the latest scientific methods. Perry declined to intervene.
In June, the Republican governor appointed medical examiner Dr. Nizam Peerwani to head the commission, which the state Legislature created to ensure scientifically sound forensic methods are used after several high-profile cases were thrown out due to unsound practices.
Peerwani called the commission's recommendations "an important document."
"So much was expected of the commission," he said. "And the outcome is very satisfactory."
Stephen Saloom, the Innocence Project's policy director, said he was heartened by the commission's recommendations. Asked whether he was disappointed the commission has been barred from determining whether negligence led to Willngham's execution, Saloom said the issue was already settled for many.
"The world should now know that the evidence relied upon to convict and execute Cameron Todd Willingham was based on scientifically invalid and unreliable methods," he said. "By any fair assessment, he was innocent."
Among other things, the commission also recommended Texas arson investigators adopt national standards and establish a timeline for all to receive advanced training.
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