Reexamining evidence

On Dec. 23, 1991, three little girls perished in a tragic house fire in Corsicana, Texas. Two-year-old Amber and her one-year-old twin sisters – Kameron and Karmon – succumbed to a blaze that was later blamed on their father, Cameron Todd Willingham. At the time of the fire, Willingham had been alone at home with the girls while his wife picked up Christmas gifts for the kids at a local Salvation Army.

Willingham told investigators he heard Amber calling him and woke up to a house filled with smoke. He said he made his way down the hall to the room the three girls shared, but the smoke and heat drove him outside, where he told a neighbor to call for help. Willingham said he tried to reenter the house, but found it impossible.

Firefighters put out the blaze, but not before the three little girls died. After fire investigators took a look at the scene, they concluded that an accelerant was used to start the fire. With the help of another prisoner’s testimony, Willingham was convicted of murdering his children and sentenced to die. Offered a deal in return for his guilty plea, the defendant refused, insisting he was innocent right up until he was executed on Feb. 16, 2004. Now, a respected panel of forensic scientists says that Willingham was telling the truth.

The Texas Forensic Science Commission, a Texas agency based at Sam Houston State University’s College of Criminal Justice, is charged with the responsibility of investigating complaints against Texas crime labs. A report prepared by Craig Beyler for the commission alleged the methods used by investigators in the Willingham case were flawed. He and the experts who reexamined the evidence used to convict the Corsicana man concluded that the fire was not arson, after all.

While critics believe Texas Gov. Rick Perry, who refused to consider the commission’s report, erred in allowing Willingham’s execution, the case is still a muddle of evidence. But one thing is clear: Whether the young Texas father murdered his children or not, forensic science is not static. New discoveries, new initiatives, new methods constantly challenge what we think we know about investigating arsons and all other criminal cases.

Consider, for example, how the ability to analyze and compare DNA evidence has revolutionized rape investigations and helped exonerate (or pinpoint) the suspect in the past few years. In my state of North Carolina at least one individual has recently been freed based on DNA evidence – a science that wasn’t available when he was originally convicted.

North Carolina also has another pressing issue: The state labs are under heavy scrutiny following reports that they skewed their presentation of evidence to benefit the prosecution in dozens of cases. Following an independent review of the lab, investigators estimate that over 200 cases may have been mishandled. Among the allegations: That examiners emphasized misleading evidence and left out exculpatory evidence.

A Texas case where a man was executed on what some now say was flawed interpretation of the evidence and a North Carolina laboratory rocked by allegations of gross misconduct. What do these two very different instances tell us?

Science is not infallible, nor are the investigators, analysts, scientists, examiners and others who use scientific tools in their criminal investigations. In the long run an arrest and conviction made using flawed or bad science – even if that approach is accepted at the time – is worse than no arrest and no conviction at all.

Every decent cop I know wants only one thing: To put away the right person. There is no such thing as the end justifying the means. And we need to do a better job integrating science into our work. Although innocent mistakes are human, some of them are preventable. And no one should ever go to prison based on a mistake – whether it’s deliberate or inadvertent.