The case of Cameron Todd Willingham continues to promote advances in arson investigations. Willingham was convicted and executed of killing his three children by intentionally setting fire to his home while the children were inside. Willingham’s conviction has been widely questioned by both lawyers and fire experts because many leading experts have reviewed the evidence and opine the fire was most likely accidental. If you have found yourself charged for a crime that you believe was accidental, you might be interested in someone like this philadelphia criminal lawyer who might be able to look into your case.
A recent article posted on the US News website reports that past cases are now being re-examined by innocence projects across the country to determine whether inmates convicted of arson are actually responsible for the fires. Investigators have often testified that certain burn patterns and charring create signals that point to arson. In a rare partnership, the Innocence Project of Texas is working with the state fire marshal to reexamine evidence in arson cases where the conviction is questionable. In the coming weeks, representatives will meet to start reviewing six cases in particular. Chris Connealy, the state fire marshal, said, “We both have the same goals, to make sure that justice is served.”
On March 27, 2013, the Innocence Project of Texas realized the fruit of their efforts when Ed Graf’s conviction was remanded to the trial court. Graf was sentenced to life in prison 25 years ago for killing his two stepsons by setting fire to a shed while the boys were locked inside. Graf has always proclaimed his innocence and says the new advancements in science have given him hope. Three experts have questioned the testimony at trial, which convicted him of arson. “It’s difficult for me to believe they can’t believe the science. The science, it’s pretty accurate now,” says Graf. New science shows the fire patterns previously believed to indicate intentionally set fires may have been caused by a “flashover,” which is when a fire evolves to a point where the entire room is in flames. Deep burn patterns can appear all over a scene at flashover, regardless of where the fire started. Additionally, the carbon dioxide levels found in Graf’s stepsons indicate that no accelerant was used and neighbors saw the boys playing with matches the day of the fire. Other circumstantial evidence in the case implicates Graf, however even local prosecutors agree “ . . . letting a conviction stand in light of the possibility that an individual was convicted on science now known to be false is unconscionable.” This Texas success was their first court victory in their Statewide Arson review.
Texas has freed more than 100 inmates who were convicted of crimes they did not commit. Attorneys in the Innocence Project of Texas are currently working on about 60 arson cases. The Texas Forensic Science Commission has also made 17 recommendations on how to investigate arson cases. Problems occur because many experts in the past have not been scientists. “Having been around fire investigations and being in the fire service the last 35 years, I saw where there could be improvements . . . I wanted to try to lead that effort to improving fire investigations. It should be based on science,” says Connealy. Connealy’s efforts will allow investigators to re-examine evidence and create new reports to submit to the proper authorities who can then determine whether there has been a wrongful conviction. Some cases require a lot of forensic examination with techniques that weren’t available at the time of the person’s conviction whereas some are easier due to negligence by police at the time. In these case, it can be as simple as looking over tapes from a home security camera alarm system that was ignored originally.
Click here to read the appellate court’s opinion.