The family of Cameron Todd Willingham is petitioning the state to issue a posthumous pardon which will clear Willingham’s name. Last week, Willingham’s stepmother and two cousins were in Austin, Texas at the state capital to present the petition. The facts of Willingham’s case are fairly simple. In 1992, Willingham was convicted of intentionally setting a fire that killed his three children at his Corsican, Texas home. Despite evidence that the fires were not intentionally set, Willingham was executed in 2004. Willingham’s cousin, Judy Cavnar, told reporters that Willingham said “I did not set that fire.” She added that “[i]t was important to him that we clear his name and the name of his children.”
The petition said that “since his trial, scientific advances have shattered every assumption underlying the testimony of the two fire investigators who declared to the jury and the court that Willingham set the fire.” However, it seems as if Gov. Rick Perry is uninterested in this new scientific evidence. Gov. Perry was presented with an arson expert’s report a few days before Willingham’s execution yet rejected the expert’s findings casting doubt on the original conviction. In 2009, the Texas Forensic Science Commission was prepared to hear testimony from a fire expert that was critical of the Willingham investigation. At the last minute, Gov. Perry replaced several members of the commission and the hearing was never held. Last year, the Commission issued a report that based its findings on the cases of Willingham and Ernest Willis but did not conclude that Willingham was wrongfully convicted.
Ernest Willis was exonerated in 2004 after serving over 17 years on death row for an arson-murder he did not commit. Willis’ conviction was based on signs of arson that are now known to be seen in accidental fires. Eventually the district attorney agreed that arson was unlikely and freed Willis. Willis befriended Willingham on death row and came to believe in his innocence. He joined the Willingham family in suporting their request for a pardon. “It’s just an injustice that needs to be corrected,” Willis said, choking up with emotion. “Gov. Perry needs to step forward and pardon this man because he’s innocent. Give this family some relief.”
Yet, there are positive signs of reform. Jeff Blackburn, chief counsel of the Innocence Project of Texas, said the state’s new fire marshal, Chris Connealy, represented an important change in efforts to get the science right. Mr. Connealy has agreed to set up a panel to re-examine 4 arson cases of more than 1,000 that Mr. Blackburn’s group has gone over. “They are really trying to improve fire science in Texas and provide a model for the rest of the country,” Mr. Blackburn said of the state’s fire marshal’s office.
This story also shows what steps Willingham’s family have to take when the justice system failed them. Asking for a pardon or clemency is pretty much the only way available to seek justice when the legal options are exhausted. Will the state board do the right thing and pardon Willingham in the face of reliable scientific evidence supporting innocence? Or will politics get in the way? Will the state finally recognize the advances in arson investigation or remain loyal to those who remain convinced of Willingham’s guilt? I don’t know if anyone can make a prediction. A pardon will show that the state has made progress in its thinking on the case. But on the other hand, the state would then have to admit that they executed an innocent man. That is an admission the state may be unwilling to make.
The California Innocence Project is faced with the same situation for many of its clients. In many cases, the legal justice system has not offered relief despite the presence of strong evidence that the person was wrongfully accused. The only option left is to ask the Governor for executive clemency. To do this, we are organizing an Innocence March where staff and supporters will walk from San Diego to Sacramento. Once in Sacramento, walkers will present petitions for executive clemency to Gov. Brown for his consideration.