In 2004, four fire experts told the Chicago Tribune that the fire that had sent Cameron Todd Willingham to Death Row and later to his execution in Texas might have been an accident rather than a crime.
Nearly two years later, a panel of four other experts who reviewed the case for the Innocence Project came to a similar conclusion, saying the State of Texas had convicted and executed Willingham based on forensic evidence that no longer was considered scientifically valid.
Now what may be the final verdict on the fire, and on Willingham's execution, will be delivered by a Maryland expert, who will examine the evidence in the first state-sanctioned inquiry into a Texas execution. Fire scientist Craig Beyler has been asked by the Texas Forensic Science Commission to conduct an independent review of the case's forensic evidence.
"He appears to be one of the pre-eminent people in the fire and arson investigation field," Samuel Bassett, an Austin attorney and commission member, said of Beyler.
Barry Scheck of the Innocence Project, a non-profit organization responsible for scores of DNA exonerations, called the hiring of Beyler an "encouraging sign" and said he hoped Beyler would be able to "get to the bottom" of the case that sent Willingham to a lethal injection.
"It's essential that this matter is resolved for the sake of those who have been wrongly convicted by unreliable arson evidence, as well as those under investigation in new arson cases," said Scheck, the Innocence Project's co-director.
The Innocence Project filed the complaint that prompted the commission's inquiry. Willingham was executed by lethal injection in 2004 for setting the December 1991 fire that killed his three young daughters in the small Texas town of Corsicana. He maintained his innocence at trial, through his years on Death Row and before he was executed.
The Tribune investigated the case in late 2004. As part of its investigation, the paper asked four fire experts from across the country to review the forensic evidence; the four concluded the indicators of arson that state and local officials cited in their case against Willingham at his 1992 trial had been debunked by universally recognized advances in fire science.
The experts said it was possible the fire at the Willingham home was an accident, as Willingham had claimed.
The Innocence Project's experts, who performed the 2006 review at no cost, came to the same conclusion. In one of its harshest criticisms of the original investigation, the panel said the fire marshal's testimony at Willingham's trial about the indicators of arson he said he found "means absolutely nothing."
The Forensic Science Commission was created in 2005 to investigate allegations of forensic error and misconduct in the country's busiest death-penalty state. The Willingham case is its first capital case.
Bassett said he hoped Beyler would be able to complete his review by early April. Beyler will write a report and may make recommendations to the commission.
It is not clear whether Beyler would conclude whether Willingham was innocent. Even if he finds that the science used at the time was flawed, as the other experts have, he may not take the next step and say Texas was wrong to execute Willingham, though that would be the clear implication.
"If [Beyler's report] is critical of the arson testimony," said Bassett, "then theoretically it's possible that could be the basis for a broader conclusion about the original conviction."
The prosecution's evidence included a jailhouse informant named Johnny Webb who testified Willingham, while both were behind bars, confided that he had set the fire. Jailhouse informants, however, are considered by the legal system as among the least credible witnesses. Such testimony has played a role in numerous prosecutions in which inmates were later exonerated.
Navarro County District Atty. R. Lowell Thompson, who was not in office when Willingham was tried or executed, said he would cooperate with any investigation but had not been contacted by the Forensic Science Commission. He has not reviewed the case.
Beyler declined to comment.