Did Texas execute an innocent man?

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by By JASON WHITELY / WFAA-TV

Bio | Email | Follow: @jasonwhitely

wfaa.com

Posted on September 18, 2009 at 6:00 PM

Updated Monday, Oct 19 at 6:19 PM

Cameron Todd Willingham.

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CORSICANA - Texas might be on the verge of admitting it executed an innocent man who was tried, sentenced and put to death based on faulty forensics, according to a recent report commissioned by the Texas Forensic Science Commission.

It centers on a crime this city, an hour south of Dallas, can't forget.

"I've been doing law enforcement for approximately 37 years and this is one of the worst scenes I've ever seen," remembered Sgt. Jimmie Hensley of the Corsicana Police Department.

In December 1991, a fire swept through Cameron Todd Willingham's small home.

He escaped but his three young daughters did not.

Despite not having a clear motive, investigators accused him of arson, saying an accelerant was used. Investigators also thought it was unusual that Willingham moved his vehicle away from the flaming house while his children were inside.

Willingham, who had prior run-ins with the law, was tried, convicted, and in 2004 - executed in the Texas Death Chamber.

"There's no doubt in my mind justice was served," Sgt. Hensley said.

But a new report, commissioned by the Texas Forensic Science Commission, says the expert evidence used against Willingham at trial was wrong.

"If something comes out of his execution that would improve the criminal justice system and keep a tragedy like this from happening in the future, it's a very big deal," explained Robert Udashen, a Dallas attorney, who's also a member of The Innocence Project, which brought the case to the state's attention.

The new report criticizes Corsicana's former fire marshal, now deceased, who investigated the deadly blaze and testified on behalf of the prosecution.

It says his expert testimony was nothing more than his opinion, not science-based fire investigation.

It added that "the investigators had poor understandings of fire science" and concluded "a finding of arson could not be sustained."

If the state agrees, it could mean Texas tried, convicted and executed Willingham on faulty forensics - the first time any state has suggested it put an innocent man to death.

"This report will hopefully wake up courts and prosecutors to be more skeptical - go out and really look at the validity of the testimony," Udashen added.

The Willingham investigation is only the second the Texas Forensic Science Commission has ever conducted. It will not decide innocence or guilt but only whether there were faulty forensics and incorrect techniques used by experts to reach conclusions used in trial.

Still, those who responded to the deadly fire that day have no doubts about what happened and whether justice was served.

"I don't know anyone who can really take reports and look at pictures and determine anything," said Doug Fogg, a retired assistant fire chief.

Fogg and Sgt. Hensley say Willingham's attorneys never countered the former fire marshal's testimony during trial.

Plus, they point out that he lost every appeal on death row.

And they say questioning him face-to-face at the time added an element to their findings that no one, examining paperwork almost two decades later, could comprehend.

They're confident the system worked.

The Texas Forensic Science Commission plans a statewide meeting about this in Las Colinas next month.

Besides its own report, commissioners will also hear from the State Fire Marshal's Office before deciding whether faulty forensics led to Willingham's execution.

Despite what the state decides, justice has already been carried out.

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