Friday, April 23, 2010





BACKGROUND: (Wikipedia); Cameron Todd Willingham (January 9, 1968 – February 17, 2004), born in Carter County, Oklahoma, was sentenced to death by the state of Texas for murdering his three daughters—two year old Amber Louise Kuykendall, and one year old twins Karmon Diane Willingham and Kameron Marie Willingham— by setting his house on fire. The fire occurred on December 23, 1991 in Corsicana, Texas. Lighter fluid was kept on the front porch of Willingham’s house as evidenced by a melted container found there. Some of this fluid may have entered the front doorway of the house carried along by fire hose water. It was alleged this fluid was deliberately poured to start the fire and that Willingham chose this entrance way so as to impede rescue attempts. The prosecution also used other arson theories that have since been brought into question. In addition to the arson evidence, a jailhouse informant claimed Willingham confessed that he set the fire to hide his wife's physical abuse of the girls, although the girls showed no other injuries besides those caused by the fire. Neighbors also testified that Willingham did not try hard enough to save his children. They allege he "crouched down" in his front yard and watched the house burn for a period of time without attempting to enter the home or go to neighbors for help or request they call firefighters. He claimed that he tried to go back into the house but it was "too hot". As firefighters arrived, however, he rushed towards the garage and pushed his car away from the burning building, requesting firefighters do the same rather than put out the fire. After the fire, Willingham showed no emotion at the death of his children and spent the next day sorting through the debris, laughing and playing music. He expressed anger after finding his dartboard burned in the fire. Firefighters and other witnesses found him suspicious of how he reacted during and after the fire. Willingham was charged with murder on January 8, 1992. During his trial in August 1992, he was offered a life term in exchange for a guilty plea, which he turned down insisting he was innocent. After his conviction, he and his wife divorced. She later stated that she believed that Willingham was guilty. Prosecutors alleged this was part of a pattern of behavior intended to rid himself of his children. Willingham had a history of committing crimes, including burglary, grand larceny and car theft. There was also an incident when he beat his pregnant wife over the stomach with a telephone to induce a miscarriage. When asked if he had a final statement, Willingham said: "Yeah. The only statement I want to make is that I am an innocent man - convicted of a crime I did not commit. I have been persecuted for 12 years for something I did not do. From God's dust I came and to dust I will return - so the earth shall become my throne. I gotta go, road dog. I love you Gabby." However, his final words were directed at his ex-wife, Stacy Willingham. He turned to her and said "I hope you rot in hell, bitch" several times while attempting to extend his middle finger in an obscene gesture. His ex-wife did not show any reaction to this. He was executed by lethal injection on February 17, 2004. Subsequent to that date, persistent questions have been raised as to the accuracy of the forensic evidence used in the conviction, specifically, whether it can be proven that an accelerant (such as the lighter fluid mentioned above) was used to start the fatal fire. Fire investigator Gerald L. Hurst reviewed the case documents including the trial transcriptions and an hour-long videotape of the aftermath of the fire scene. Hurst said, "There's nothing to suggest to any reasonable arson investigator that this was an arson fire. It was just a fire." Two days before the Forensic Science Commission was to question Beyler in a public forum, the governor replaced its chairman and two other members whose terms were up. That forced the commission to delay the hearing so new members could read up on the case, and no new date has been set. Perry has since replaced a third member of the commission.


"A state forensics panel on Friday assigned four of its members to review the arson case that resulted in the execution of Cameron Todd Willingham, who was convicted of killing his three children," the AP story by reporter Danny Robbins filed earlier today under the heading, "Forensics commission to review Willingham case," begins.

"In a report prepared last year for the Texas Forensic Science Commission, fire expert Craig Beyler found fault in the investigation that led to Willingham's conviction," the story begins.

"But in September, two days before the commission was to discuss the report and question Beyler, Gov. Rick Perry replaced three of its members, including its chairman," it continues.

"The new chairman, John Bradley, the Williamson County district attorney, canceled that meeting.

Without Beyler's finding, prosecutors have admitted it would have been hard to win a death sentence against Willingham.

The investigative panel was confirmed Friday at a commission meeting in Irving. It will include Bradley, Fort Worth defense attorney Lance Evans, Tarrant County Medical Examiner Nizam Peerwani and Sarah Kerrigan, a forensic toxicologist and director of a crime lab at Sam Houston State University.

Like Bradley, Evans and Peerwani were appointed to the commission late last year. Kerrigan has been on the commission since 2007.

During Friday's meeting, Bradley initially said Kerrigan would not be serving on the investigative panel because of personal issues and appointed Evans to replace her. However, at Evans' suggestion, the panel was expanded to four members and Kerrigan agreed to stay on.

"Obviously, everybody is aware of the public perception regarding this investigation," Evans said, explaining why he believed a four-person panel would be best.

Willingham, an unemployed mechanic from Corsicana, was executed in 2004 after being convicted of capital murder for setting a 1991 house fire that killed his three daughters.

Beyler said in his report that the investigation of the fire was so seriously flawed that its conclusion of arson can't be supported. The report said the fire investigation didn't adhere to the standards of care in place at the time, or to current standards."

The story can be found at:



Texas forensics panel to move ahead with Willingham arson case probe

03:04 PM CDT on Friday, April 23, 2010

By CHRISTY HOPPE / The Dallas Morning News

IRVING – A state panel decided Friday to move ahead with its investigation of questionable arson science that contributed to the conviction and execution of Cameron Todd Willingham.

The Willingham case has become part of the national debate on the death penalty with opponents suggesting that Texas in 2004 executed an innocent man. Gov. Rick Perry, prosecutors and others have maintained that other evidence clearly pointed to Willingham's guilt in the 1991 Corsicana house fire that killed his three daughters.
Also Online

Death Penalty blog: Blow-by-blow account of today's meeting

Stories, photos and videos about the Willingham case

The Texas Forensic Science Commission was poised last October to hear from a national expert it had hired to review the case when Gov. Rick Perry removed the commission's chairman and two other members two days before the meeting.

Perry's new appointee to head the commission, Williamson County District Attorney John Bradley, cancelled the meeting citing his need to educate himself on commission's business.

The Willingham case returned to the agenda on Friday, seven months later, with commission members deciding to continue gathering information.

A new four-member panel – Bradley, Fort Worth defense attorney Lance Evans, Tarrant County Medical Examiner Nizam Peerwani and forensic scientist Sarah Kerrigan -- of the nine-member commission was named to take charge of the Willingham review.

Kerrigan said that the commission had hired national fire expert Craig L. Beyler to examine the Willingham case.

His report found a shoddy investigation and old myths about fire made it impossible to determine the fire was intentionally set or that accelerants were used.

Beyler was scheduled to testify before the commission at the October meeting that was cancelled.

Kerrigan said that the commission's investigation still has a long way to go, including examining the state fire marshal's response, which has yet to be completed, as well as review of transcripts, videotapes and subsequent comments that Willingham might have made to his estranged wife indicating his guilt.

"Beyler was just one part of the information. We've had a delay. It's very much in its infancy," Kerrigan said of the investigation.

"We're very far from a conclusion," Peerwani said.

He said that he believes the panel will ask Beyler some questions in writing and invite him again to come in person to discuss his findings.

The commission also decided to proceed in the investigation of Brandon Moon, who served 17 years in prison for a series of El Paso rapes that subsequent DNA tests show he did not commit.

Department of Public Safety lab tests made on the evidence were "perhaps in error" and expert testimony might have given "undue weight to the serological tests" that identified Moon as the source," said commission member Arthur Eisenberg, a forensic scientist.

Moon was exonerated in 2004.



Rodger Jones/Editorial Writer Bio | E-mail | News tips

... has now concluded its consideration of the Cameron Todd Willingham matter. No fuss, no wrangling, no dissent over the course guided by Chairman John Bradley. All commissioners seemed in agreement that they need more information and that the case "has only just begun," in the words of Commissioner Sarah Kerrigan.

If the boss asks me for guidance for our next editorial on Bradley and his guidance, I'd say he was pretty even-keeled and fair.

Update on that: We've now talked to Bradley afterward, questions are left unanswered and the continued secrecy is bothering me. Keep reading.

Here is a blow-by-blow from when the meeting started this morning.


9:30 am: It has just begun in Irving. Here is the agenda.

It's a crowded, small meeting room at the Omni in Las Colinas. At least five video cameras, including one from the Innocence Project out of New York. Additional chairs being carted in. Here come a sixth and seventh videos guys. Many people standing around the walls of the room.

9:35 am: Chairman John Bradley, the governor's controversial chairman, presents minutes of the last meeting for approval, but members say they are surprised that the minutes are far less detailed that had been the practice before Bradley became chair last year. Bradley stiffens. He says providing detailed minutes takes time and interpretation, but members push back and ask for the 3- to 4-page digests that had been relying on. They prevail in a vote.

9:40 am: Bradley brings up the matter of commission committees. Commissioner Sarah Kerrigan from Sam Houston State discloses that she had been in touch with Bradley over her concern over the time involved serving on a three person committee in the Willingham case. She, Bradley and Tarrant ME Nizam Peerwani had been named to that committee by Bradley in January.

Bradley tells commissioners that he had asked Commissioner Lance Evans, a defense attorney from Fort Worth, whether he would be willing to replace Kerrigan on the panel. Bradley says he thought it would be appropriate, considering public interest in the Willingham case, to balance out membership. Bradley is a prosecutor, DA of Williamson County..

Evans says he was willing to join the committee, but he wanted to discuss whether the sub-panel should be limited to only the three. He points out that the Willingham case had been reviewed previously by the entire commission and that, as a relatively new member, he didn't have the background of others. After discussion, Kerrigan agrees to stay on the committee.

9:55 am: Bradley brings up the agenda item of crime labs, best practices, eradicating backlogs, etc. The commission is an outgrowth of embarrassing chaos in the Houston police department crime lab, and the ruination of many criminal cases. So you might say crime lab work is at the heart of the commission's mission.

Pat Evans, head of the DPS crime lab, is presenting on the agency's work.He is standing next to Bradley at the head of the table.Like a student before the teacher. Awkward. Lotsa numbers in a written report prepared for commissioners. No PowerPoint. Most people in the room have no reference point.

10:20 am: Evans still presenting. Bradley looks to him for comment on the Hank Skinner death penalty case out of West Texas. He asks Evans about advances in DNA technology and post-conviction testing. This is weird. Skinner's lawyers passed up the chance for DNA testing on evidence before trial. Skinner's appellate team has asked the Supreme Court to postpone Skinner's execution pending more testing in this high-profile case. Bradley seems to want to suggest that belated shenanigans by defense lawyers adds to backlogs at forensic labs.

Commissioner Evans, the defense lawyer, says it's a pretty simple matter to him -- that if testable evidence exists, the justice system ought to get it tested.

Court of Criminal Appeals Judge Barbara Hervey is here. She has been active in trying to upgrade standards of criminal forensic work, too. Hervey took the initiative to form the Criminal Justice Integrity Unit in response to the record spate of DNA exonerations in Texas.

10:37 am: Lori Wilson. quality control mgr for the Houston PD crime lab, has stepped to the head of the table and is standing next to Bradley to present. She said she had a PowerPoint, but they couldn't get it on the screen, for some reason. Much data on personnel, caseload, types of cases, etc. She says the HPD lab had 27,000 rests for analysis last year.

11:03 am: Representative from private forensic lab Orchid Cellmark is talking about the role of non-government labs in criminal cases. I'm learning more about accreditation, workload, capabilities, cost efficiencies and other stuff about private labs to last me a lifetime.

11:26 am: Members are talking about outsourcing and when it makes sense for law enforcement agencies and works down backlogs in public labs. Bradley says protocols (if that's the right word) might be something that the commission might want to establish for having criminal work done in for-profit labs.

Kerrigan says that leaders ought to focus instead on adequately funding public facilities. She says there sas been "chronic underfunding" of state labs for decades.

I don't think we're going to get near the Willingham case on the agenda before lunch. And I'm guessing the DA will call for lunch.

11:35 am: We break for facilities. Innocence Project policy director Stephen Saloom complains to some of us that Bradley has taken up 90 minutes with a subject outside the commission's purview. He is upset.

Here is Chapter 38 of the Texas Code of Criminal Procedure. You decide.

11:45 am: Back at it, talking about staffing. The sole staff member, Leigh Tomlin, discusses the heavy workload involving communication, processing complaints, records issues, legal issues, meeting preparation, etc. In a strange arrangement, Tomlin is on the payroll of Sam Houston State and offices there.

Tomlin puts on the table a proposal to hire another staffer as legal counsel at $60,000 to $80,000 a year. Bradley and Evans address the pressure it would put on the commission's small budget, which is funneled (I think he said) through Sam Houston State. Bradley says it's a chicken-and-egg deal, that the Legislature won't boost the funding of an agency that doesn't spend it. Kerrigan points out that the commission's investigatory work is just beginning and will take money. She is concerned that a large staff expense would cut into that.

Members are talking about what the new staffer's duties would be and whether the job should entail the duties of executive director. Commissioner Garry Adams, an A&M veterinarian, wants to make clear who this person would report to. It should be the commission, he says, and Bradley agrees.

12:20 pm: Members vote to begin the search for general counsel.


1:01 pm: Back. Taking up issue of procedures for how to take up complaints to the commission and begin investigations. It would be done through the new committee structure and was discussed in a private meeting of three commission members in Peerwani's office last week. Bradley indicates that he's interested in Dr. Peerwani to head the key committee on screening cases.

Peerwani leads the discussion of five individual complaints that the committee had already reviewed. The first one he brings up he recommends for dismissal on grounds that it was outside the commission jurisdiction. He moves, Bradley seconds and all vote aye. I have no idea what this case is all about. There is no paperwork for the public to view, nor are the details on the vid screen.

Peerwani brings up a second case and says it is outside jurisdiction. Kerrigan says she thought members had agreed at their last meeting that they need to fully discuss scope and responsibilities of the commission and what the law calls for.

Peerwani says the second complaint is outside the commission's scope, too. He says he doesn't think the law calls for the commission to review an investigator's forensic analysis. Commissioner Arthur Ray Eisenberg, of the UNT Health Science Center in Fort Worth, disagrees. He says it is indeed "germane" whether an investigator's analysis and interpretation results in solid testimony. This is a key issue.

Bradley says that the case in question doesn't involve forensic work, however, and the jurisdiction question can be resolved elsewhere. Eisenberg doesn't disagree, and the complaint in question is dismissed.

Bradley seems interested in drawing a line somewhere on where the commission can or can't question forensic interpretation.

At issue are the procedures adopted by members in January.

1:28 pm: More complaints disposed of or left pending for more information.

1:33 pm: Bradley brings up Willingham. He asks Kerrigan for an update. She says the commission is "very much at the beginning of this investigation.There's much work that has yet to be done."

She says the report issued to the commission by arson consultant Craig Beyler last August is just one piece "and we've only just begun to put the other pieces together." Kerrigan says many people and the media may be under the impression that the highly critical Beyler report was the commission's own conclusion in the matter.

Bradley asks for a show of hands of which members were on the commission when it decided to take up the Willingham complaint (in 2007, I think). I counted three hands.

Bradley asks for input on what thoughts they have on proceeding. Members say they wish to read the entire transcript of the trial.

"I'm surprised we didn't have the transcript of the entire trial," Bradley says.

Kerrigan says the commission needs to include questioning Beyler. Bradley says they should contact him in writing and notify him of what the commission is interested in hearing.

in addition, Kerrigan says she is interested in "having a discourse with another expert."

No one disagrees with this direction or seems unhappy about it.

No murmurs from the people in the audience with a poster proclaiming Willingham's innocence -- "Innocent and Executed."

Next item.

Brandon Moon case comes up out of El Paso. It involves a guy who spent years in jail on a rape he didn't do. Members decided to get more information.

2:25 pm: Break. Half the audience leaves. Not the people with the Willingham poster. I bet they address the commission at the public comment period.

Talking to a couple of commissioners about developments so far.

Any surprises? I ask Adams.

He says the commission is a work in progress and its procedures are "still a living document."

And Willingham? It's just one piece of the commission's work ahead, he says, although it's the big headline for people like me. Lots of work lies ahead on Willingham, he says, and it needs to be careful and deliberate.

"The data will speak," he says. "The science will speak."

Eisenberg says he hopes the commission is showing that "we want to keep things open and transparent."

I ask Adams his thoughts on what Eisenberg said earlier about forensic interpretation falling within the purview of the commission's work. Adams says he wants to hear more opinions before he commits to a position.

2:35 pm: Judge Hervey speaks about her justice integrity work and effort to get scientific training to everyone involved in the justice system. She says she has the backing of prosecutors, the defense bar and judges to participate in the planning. She says Sen. Rodney Ellis will help host a big session at the Capitol, and Hervey says she then would "take it around the state."

3:20 pm: Kerrigan wants to make sure the commission nails down that jurisdiction question next meeting, since "90 percent of what we see is beyond our jurisdiction."

3:26 pm: Public comment opens with "friend of Todd's."

Her name is Gloria Rubac, and she says she objects to a "flippant" comment Bradley made about the Skinner case. Evidence in the Skinner case wasn't DNA-tested at trial because his attorney was a former prosecutor who prosecuted him. Since Skinner has been on death row, he has tried repeatedly to get all evidence in the case analyzed. She repeated that she found Bradley to be "flippant."

Saloom with the Innocence Project says he's glad the commission is "getting back to its substantive work, which had been halted on Oct. 2." That's the date of a meeting that Bradley had canceled right after Rick Perry named him new chair.

3:30 pm: Meeting adjourned.

Bradley meets the press. Asked about the pace of the Willingham case ahead, he says it will proceed as appropriate. Asked if he would set a timetable, he says no. He says that would be arbitrary.

Asked about the newly configured, four-person Willingham committee, he says it will meet in private. Why not public? "I don't think it's in the best interest of how we choose to do things." Asked who decided the Willingham committees will meet privately, he says the committee did. (I should point out that the assistant AG attending today's session advised the commission that the committee were only made official today and that they couldn't have made official decisions at their organizing meetings last week.)

Bradley cuts off questions before I could ask him particulars of what the committee will tackle at its next meeting.

Talking with Commissioner Evans, the Fort Worth defense attorney, who says it was news to him that the committee will be meeting in private. Should it be? Evans says he would have no objection to public meetings, though he appreciates that there is a level of frankness that can help get things done behind closed doors. Overall, he says he's willing to listen to pros and cons.

Evans says he figures that committee members will be in contact to decide what materials to review and people to talk to for their next session -- whenever that is.

On his way out, Adams says it was news to him that committees will conduct business in private. He presumed they would be public. But don't worry, he says, other members of the commission will make sure business is above-board.