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Texas officials seem to rule out wrongful-execution inquiry

September 9, 2011 |  5:05 pm

Willingham The Texas Forensic Science Commission seems to have decided that an opinion from the Texas attorney general this year essentially halts its investigation into allegations that Cameron Todd Willingham was wrongfully executed on Gov. Rick Perry's watch.

Willingham, 36, was put to death in 2004 for setting a 1991 fire that killed his three young daughters. The case drew national attention three years ago when a fire science expert hired by the state commission challenged the arson finding that led to Willingham's conviction.

Perry, a Republican presidential hopeful, has defended his decision to let Willingham's execution stand.

"Willingham was a monster," Perry said in a Houston Chronicle report in 2009, stating that Willingham clearly murdered his children.

"Person after person has stood up and testified to facts of this case," Perry said.

In July, Texas Atty. Gen. Greg Abbott issued an opinion that the commission can only investigate cases that involve evidence tested in state-accredited crime labs since the commission was created in September 2005.

On Friday, the commission issued a draft report saying the attorney general's opinion prevents it  from investigating or issuing conclusions about the conduct of arson investigators in the case. The commission plans to issue a final report in October, after it reviews recommendations for state officials in future cases.

Nizam Peerwani, the Fort Worth medical examiner who leads the commission, told CNN he has no plans to challenge the attorney general's opinion.

"This commission is not going to work against the attorney general's office," Peerwani said.

Those who pushed for reconsideration of the Willingham case, including lawyers at the New York-based Innocence Project, say they still hope to persuade the commission to take another look.

"I look forward to directing the commission to information that demonstrates that they do indeed have jurisdiction," Stephen Saloom, policy director at the Innocence Project, told CNN on Friday.

Innocence Project officials have argued that Texas fire marshals were negligent in their handling of the Willingham case, relying on obsolete arson investigation techniques. But given the attorney general's opinion, state forensic commissioners could not find the fire marshals negligent, according to Friday's draft report.

"We're not saying there were no problems in this case," Peerwani told CNN.

Peerwani added that the commission was "very pleased" that  since it assessed the case, the state fire marshal's office has expressed a willingness to review its standards for arson investigations.

"We think this is a very significant advance," he said.

Peerwani could not be reached for further comment late Friday.

Willingham's cousin, Patricia Cox, told CNN that she remained optimistic that the commission would revisit its findings before a final report is approved.

"I think they would be remiss if they brought it to this point and talked about future cases and the improvement of arson investigation, and yet failed to address the past cases," Cox said. "If nothing else, we are gratified that we had a part in changing the arson investigation standards in the state of Texas."

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--Molly Hennessy-Fiske

Photo: Cameron Willingham was charged with setting a blaze two days before Christimas in 1991 that killed his three daughters. He was convicted of capital murder, sentenced to death and killed by lethal injection in 2004. Willingham maintained his innocence to the end. Credit: Texas Department of Criminal Justice/Associated Press.


 

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