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CORSICANA - Without ever using the name Cameron Todd Willingham, the Texas Attorney General’s office issued a six-page legal opinion Friday that the Texas Forensic Science Commission shouldn’t be dealing with situations like the Willingham case.
Willingham was a Corsicana man executed for killing his three children in a 1991 house fire. Five years ago, the issue was posed to the Texas Forensics Science Commission by the Innocence Project, which argued the science in the case wouldn’t stand up to modern standards, and throwing the commission directly into the national debate over the death penalty. The commission was created to examine crime science labs in Texas.
The Attorney General’s interpretation of the law is in response to three questions posed by John Bradley, the former head of the Forensics Commission.
Bradley asked if the commission should be considering cases older than the commission itself; if it should focus on state-accredited crime science labs; and if there were limits on which crime sciences would be overseen by the commission.
The opinion states that the commission can take up old cases, but not if the forensics analysis was done before the commission came into creation on Sept. 1, 2005.
“The Attorney General is telling us this isn’t something they (commissioners) should be looking into in the first place,” said Corsicana City Attorney Terry Jacobson. Jacobson has long espoused the opinion that the commission’s authority did not extend to Willingham.
The new head of the forensics commission, Dr. Nizam Peerwani, personally agreed on that interpretation, but he pointed out that he can’t speak for the entire board. Peerwani is the medical examiner for Tarrant County.
“The first one is pretty straightforward, in part,” Peerwani said. “Basically, if the complaint about a case predates Sept. 1, 2005, does the commission have permission to investigate? Yes, but if the tests were done before then, you don’t.”
In addition, the Attorney General opinion seems to limit the commission’s scope to only those labs that are DPS-accredited, and that it should limit itself to specific areas of science, however, that last one was vague on what to do if the area wasn’t listed in the statute.
“The second one is very, very clear,” Peerwani said. “It expressly excludes any lab not created by the DPS, so it defines what labs we’re going to investigate. Third, the law states what are the types of analysis included in the statute, but it’s quite a big number of them.”
The commission is scheduled to meet in September, and the Willingham case is expected to be part of the agenda.
In April, the group issued a preliminary report with suggestions on how to treat arson cases in general, including communicating better, improving training and other issues. How it all related to the Willingham case was to be the second part of the report, and that may not happen now, Peerwani said.
The 15 recommendations in the first report will stand, he said. “They’re really good, and we hope some will be followed. The second report deals specifically with Willingham. In September, we’re going to debate whether we’ll have a second report.”
“We have to sit down and consider it and decide where to go forward,” he said. “Of course, we’re going to use the Attorney General’s opinion to guide us.”
The group that brought the case to the commission isn’t giving up yet, said Innocence Project Policy Director Stephen Saloom.
The Innocence Project still insists that the state fire marshal’s office should have spoken up when the science of fire investigations improved between 1991 and 2004, when Willingham was executed. The group believes that the science was faulty in the Willingham case, and that he was wrongly executed.
“This allegation is about arson evidence,” Saloom said. “It’s about the helter-skelter way of dispensing justice in Texas.
“The investigation into whether the fire marshal has been negligent, there’s no reason for that to stop, based on this opinion,” he said.
It remains to be seen how the commission interprets the opinion, and what actions it takes, Jacobson said. However, he believes this should end the matter.
“The city’s been vindicated as far as our position across the board,” Jacobson said. “Unfortunately, a great deal of time and expense has been incurred by something that shouldn’t have been an issue in the first place. I do hope the preliminary report will improve fire and forensic sciences, there were some good ideas in there. So maybe something positive came out of it.”
Cameron Todd Willingham:
Dec. 23, 1991: Two-year-old Amber Kuykendall and 1-year-old twins Karmen and Kameron Willingham perish in a house fire three days before Christmas in their home on West 11th Avenue in Corsicana.
Jan. 8, 1992: Cameron Todd Willingham is charged with murder.
August 1992: Willingham goes to trial, is convicted on Aug. 20, 1992, and sentenced to death on Aug. 21, 1992.
Feb. 13, 2004: A last minute appeal to Willingham’s death sentence is filed, and includes a report from a fire scientist raising doubt about the 1992 investigation. Texas Gov. Rick Perry does not grant a stay of execution.
Feb. 17, 2004: Willingham, proclaiming his innocence to the end, is executed by lethal injection.
June 18, 2005: The Texas Forensic Science Commission is established by the legislature and signed into law by Gov. Rick Perry to look at allegations of faulty science in criminal cases.
May 2, 2006: A report issued by The Innocence Project says four fire scientists were critical of the original fire investigation in the Willingham case. The Texas Forensic Science Commission is asked to investigate the Willingham case. The commission agrees to look into the case in August 2008.
Aug. 24, 2009: A report by Craig Beyler, commissioned by the Texas Forensic Science Commission, is made public. Beyler claims the original investigators used science that had since been disproved.
Sept. 29, 2009: Days before a meeting of the Forensic Science Commission, Texas Gov. Rick Perry tells commission chairman Sam Bassett and two other members that they will not be reappointed to the panel. Perry then names John Bradley, Harris County District Attorney, to head the science panel.
April 14, 2011: The Forensic Science Commission releases a draft report acknowledging that the science of arson investigation has changed and recommending new processes as regards arson cases in the future, but does not issue a decision on the Willingham case directly.
May 2011: John Bradley's nomination to continue as chairman of the commission is turned down by a legislative committee. Dr. Nizam Peerwani becomes the new head of the commission.
July 31, 2011: Texas Attorney General Greg Abbot issues an opinion stating the Texas Forensic Science Commission does not have authority over the 1992 arson investigation in the Willingham case.