KBTX | Bryan & College Station, TX | Aggieland News

Did Texas Execute An Innocent Man?

By: KHOU-Jeremy Desel Email
By: KHOU-Jeremy Desel Email

HOUSTON -- On February 17, 2004, the state of Texas executed Cameron Todd Willingham. He protested his innocence to the end and his final words were, "I am an innocent man --convicted of a crime I did not do."

"It needs to come out, not only because Texas may have executed an innocent man, but because the same bogus scientific basis that was used in the Willingham case has put other people in prison that are still there," said Gary Udashen of the Innocence Project.

Willingham was convicted of murdering his three young daughters: 2-year-old Amber and 1-year-old twins, Karmon and Kameron, two days before Christmas in 1991.

State Fire Marshalls and Corsicana Fire Investigators testified that Willingham set the fire in the family home that killed the girls. They maintained that burn patterns, cracked windows and other signs pointed to arson.

The Texas Forensic Science Commission commissioned a report on the science used in the case. Its author, international arson expert Craig Beyler, was set to testify about his conclusions before the committee.

The report clearly states the fire may not have been arson. It says, "...opinions are nothing more than a collection of personal beliefs that have nothing to do with science based fire investigation. The investigators had poor understandings of fire science and the finding of arson could not be sustained."

Last week, two days before that hearing, Governor Rick Perry replaced three members of the commission including its chairman. The new chair put the hearing on indefinite hold.

"Those individuals’ terms were up so we replaced them. There is nothing out of the ordinary there," said Perry at the time of the replacement.

Udashen sees it another way.

"Governor Perry did not want an official finding, of a state commission that he appointed the members of, saying that an innocent person had been executed," said Udashen.

Perry was warned before Willingham was put to death that there were serious questions about the validity of the science used in the case, but allowed the execution to proceed.

The case is getting national attention. It also caught the eye of State Senator and chair of the Criminal Justice Committee, John Whitmire of Houston.

"I'm concerned about the process. It looks like it might have gotten off schedule. Where do we go from here? That is my greatest concern and my responsibility," Whitmire said.

Whitmire is planning to call a hearing in Austin to ask the new commission chair that very question.

But did Texas execute an innocent person?

"I am comfortable of the cases that I am familiar with that we have the right person. But the Willingham 91 case with flawed arson scientific information, I haven't reached a conclusion on that yet," Whitmire said.

The Innocence Project has does not doubt Willingham's innocence. They are accusing Governor Perry of simply trying to delay the process to escape political embarrassment.

"He is not going to stop the truth from coming out though," said Udashen.

But no matter what the commission eventually finds, nothing will change what the State of Texas has already done.

Governor Perry says he stands behind the execution of Willingham. He says his review of the case in 2004 showed clear and compelling evidence that Willingham murdered his children.

The Beyler report suggests the likely cause of the fire was not arson, but an electrical fire.

Senator Whitmire was the author of the bill that created the Forensic Science Commission. He is now shooting for a meeting of the State Senate Criminal Justice Committee on November 10.


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