Arson investigators in Texas have relied on old wives’ tales and junk science to send men to prison, and perhaps even the death chamber, top experts on fire behavior tell the Dallas Morning News. Their arguments were magnified last month when Dr. Craig Beyler, a nationally respected fire engineer hired by the state to review evidence in two death row cases, issued a withering report that found no scientific basis to classify either fire as an arson. He methodically outlined about a dozen instances of improper analysis and mistaken conclusions by investigators, saying they relied on folklore about fire and ignored evidence that contradicted their theories.
His was the second critical report by scientists examining the capital murder cases of Ernest Willis and Cameron Todd Willingham. After 17 years, Willis walked free when a new district attorney concluded that the fire was accidental, probably caused by faulty wiring or a bad ceiling fan. Willingham was executed in 2004, and his case, outlined in The New Yorker, has launched a new round of questions and speculation about the death penalty. Capital punishment opponents have long searched for a case of a provably innocent person having been executed. The Willingham case isn’t it, at least not yet. But it raises the specter of arson becoming the next great frontier for questionable convictions. Willingham’s prosecutors acknowledge that some of the investigative techniques used back then have become outmoded, but they maintain that the trial testimony points to “overwhelming evidence of guilt.”