Texas could see its first post-humous exoneration
Published: Thursday, October 3, 2013
Updated: Thursday, October 3, 2013 00:10
Texas execution laws and standards may be threatened by a 1991 capital murder case conviction and 2004 execution that may become Texas' first ever posthumous exoneration, according to an Innocence Project’s request filed Sept. 26.
Two days shy of Christmas in 1991 a house fire broke out in the Willingham household in Corsicana, Texas. The blaze's cause was originally determined to be arson through what was assumed to be accelerant burn patterns found in the home, according to the original fire investigation. This would have been an open and shut case had it not been for the fact that Cameron Todd Willingham, the home owners' three young daughters were killed in the blaze.
Willingham was soon charged with homicide and accused of setting the fire to kill his daughters, according to court documents. Throughout the subsequent trial, conviction and incarceration Willingham maintained his innocence. Feb. 17, 2004, Todd Willingham was executed in Huntsville, Texas, by lethal injection, according to the Texas Department of Criminal Justice execution records.
Two months after Willingham's death The Innocence Project, a national organization dedicated to the clearing of innocent names and exoneration of innocent people, published a 48-page report deeming the methods used in the investigation of the fire invalid, according to the Innocence Project’s website.
This was followed by a lengthy investigation conducted by the Texas Forensic Science Commission that began in 2008 and still has not concluded. In 2009 an arson expert hired by the commission released a statement on the case followed by a draft report from the commission released in April 2011, according to the TFSC.
The Chicago Tribune also published an investigative report commenting on Gov. Rick Perry's decision to remove several members of the commission during the investigation, leading to the cancellation of trials and hearings in connection with the review of Willingham's case. Several people have called it a strategic move in effort to deter the finishing of the review.
The fire and arson expert concluded that “Texas fire investigators had no basis to rule [the] deadly house fire was an arson,” said the Chicago Tribune in a series that scrutinized the investigation in 2009.
In the 2011 draft report the TFSC said, “In the Willingham case, an unspecified number of samples were sent for testing, and one (under the aluminum threshold of the front door) tested positive for accelerant.”
With the numerous sources of review spanning throughout the nation including an extensive review by the New Yorker, the Chicago Tribune and several others, Gov. Rick Perry has received unprecedented amounts criticism for his decision to carry out the execution despite challenge from countless sources and appeals reaching the federal court system.
The Forensic Science Commission continues to review this case today as Willingham's cause gains more media attention and people are calling for the exoneration of Willingham.
If he is exonerated, the impact on Willingham’s kin is questionable.
There has never been a posthumous exoneration in the state of Texas, leaving a massive field of interpretation if Willingham's name is cleared. There is zero precedence in this matter according to Sam Houston State University's Gene Roberts, Director of Student Mediation and Legal Services.
Roberts said that part of the problem is that if he is exonerated, it is unclear of what will happen since no execution has ever been exonerated before.