Ernest Willis was on death row for 17 years in Texas before he was exonerated, thanks to new revelations about the flaws of outdated science on proving arson. The same type of faulty evidence was used to convict Todd Willingham, but he was executed a month before Willis’s exoneration. Now, Willingham’s family is asking for a posthumous pardon, submitting thousands of pages to the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles to hammer home one more time the devastating flaws in the 1992 testimony of the state fire marshal.
Willingham was accused of having killed his three daughters by burning down his own house. The evidence presented against him included testimony from the fire marshal that suggested accelerants were used in the fire, and testimony of a fellow inmate that was later recanted. Scientific evidence that existed when Willingham was alive called into question alleged indicators of arson, such as cracked windows. But when Willingham’s lawyers presented this evidence in 2004 and asked Gov. Rick Perry for time to reopen the case, Perry allowed the execution to go forward.
Months after his death, the Chicago Tribune published a definitive investigative report boldly headlined “Man executed on disproved forensics”:
Before Willingham died by lethal injection on Feb. 17, Texas judges and Gov. Rick Perry turned aside a report from a prominent fire scientist questioning the conviction. […]
“There’s nothing to suggest to any reasonable arson investigator that this was an arson fire,” said [Gerald] Hurst, a Cambridge University-educated chemist who has investigated scores of fires in his career. “It was just a fire.”
[Kendall] Ryland, chief of the Effie Fire Department and a former fire instructor at Louisiana State University, said that, in his workshop, he tried to re-create the conditions the original fire investigators described.
When he could not, he said, it “made me sick to think this guy was executed based on this investigation. … They executed this guy and they’ve just got no idea–at least not scientifically–if he set the fire, or if the fire was even intentionally set.”
In 2009, the New Yorker ran a similarly scathing indictment of the evidence in Willingham’s case, in which Hurst called the theory that accelerant must have been used based on the temperature of the fire “nonsense” disproven by countless experiments.
Last September, in yet another disheartening moment, Texas Attorney General Greg Abott (R) halted an investigation into Willingham’s case. But state officials are now reviewing 26 arson cases that are based on the same false evidence. The state has a new fire marshal, which the Innocence Project of Texas’ Jeff Blackburn said represents a significant opportunity to get the science right, if not for Willingham’s family, than for the many others in Texas still serving questionable sentences for arson.