Innocence group asks court to look at arson case

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Associated Press

Posted on September 24, 2010 at 7:53 PM

DALLAS -- The Innocence Project has asked a Texas court to "restore the reputation" of a man it claims was wrongly convicted and executed for killing his three children in a house fire.

The New York-based innocence group filed a petition in state district court in Austin on Friday, asking a judge to hold a hearing examining whether fire investigators were wrong in ruling arson was the cause of a 1991 fire that killed Cameron Todd Willingham's three daughters. Willingham was executed in 2004.

Innocence Project Co-Director Barry Scheck sought the court of inquiry a week after the Texas Forensic Science Commission declined to clear fire investigators of professional misconduct for making the arson determination.

State District Judge Charles Baird confirmed the petition was filed.

"Through this petition and subsequent court proceedings, we hope to get to the truth of what happened in this case and to restore Willingham's reputation," Scheck said in a written statement.

A jury in Corsicana, south of Dallas, convicted Willingham of capital murder in 1992. He was executed in 2004, after Gov. Rick Perry turned down his final appeal.

Texas has executed more people than any other state.

Fire investigators' testimony was the primary evidence against Willingham. They said they found pour patterns and puddling on the floor, signs someone had poured a liquid accelerant throughout Willingham's home. The defense didn't present a fire expert of its own.

Willingham's conviction was upheld nine times.

But the investigators' conclusions have been strongly challenged by several fire experts. Craig Beyler, chairman of the International Association of Fire Safety Science, wrote last year in a report for the commission that investigators didn't follow standards in place at the time and did not have enough evidence to make an arson finding.

The commission plans to meet in November to question fire experts about the professional standards used by arson investigators in the early 1990s. The commissioners are withholding judgment on whether investigators were wrong to say arson caused the blaze.

This is not the first time for the Innocence Project has used the court of inquiry, an obscure and rarely used illegal procedure, to attempt to clear the name of a Texas inmate.

Jeff Blackburn, chief counsel for the Innocence Project of Texas, petitioned for a similar hearing in Baird's court in the case of Tim Cole. Earlier this year, Perry granted the state's first posthumous pardon to Cole, who died in prison after serving more than 13 years for a wrongful rape conviction.

Cole was convicted in the 1985 rape of a Texas Tech University student in Lubbock. The Army veteran was cleared by DNA evidence in 2008, nine years after he died in prison of complications from asthma at age 39.

In a ruling issued after a court of inquiry in 2009, Baird said mistaken eyewitness identification, questionable suspect lineups and a faulty investigation by Lubbock police led to Cole's wrongful conviction.

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