The Texas Tribune reports on the Innocence Project of Texas‘ (IPOT) arson review project. The Tribune reports that the IPOT told the Texas Forensic Commission that the number of arson cases where there may have been a wrongful conviction will be smaller than expected.
The impetus for the review of arson convictions stems from the controversy surrounding the conviction and execution of Cameron Todd Willingham. At the time, fire investigator Dr. Gerald Hurst told reporters that “The Willingham case is like a hundred other cases I’ve seen, except that they executed him. The others are rotting away in prison.” The IPOT then proceeded to review all the arson convictions in Texas. They contacted 1,085 defendants in arson cases who were incarcerated or recently released. Those cases were then pared down to 33. IPOT’s executive director Nick Vilbas said he “expects the final number of cases that are sent for review to the state fire marshal to be six to eight.” A Forensic Commission member told the Tribune that “When you have six to eight cases out of a thousand, you’re really restoring public confidence in the fire investigation system.”
But the low number of cases may be misleading. Scott Henson of the Innocence Project said “the arson review only addressed convictions in which someone is currently serving prison time. They did not look at cases in which the convicted arsonist is on parole or probation, or has finished their sentence. In addition, Henson said, many false arson accusations did not enter the criminal justice system, but instead were handled by the Texas Department of Insurance as a part of questions over fire damage claims.”
Although the review yielded fewer cases than expected, the work of the IPOT in this area is groundbreaking. Innocence projects are constantly asking for commissions and studies to look at the causes of wrongful convictions and to provide reforms. On occasion, the states will agree to this idea and sometimes even implement the suggested reforms. What this commission should not be used for is to prove that the current justice system works because the percentage of wrongful convictions is so low. Contrary to the commission member’s statement, the public confidence should be shaken if there is even one wrongful conviction is discovered. The IPOT project is not only useful for discovering the mistakes of the past but providing information to prevent mistakes in the future.