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Local and National Reporting on the Willingham Case

Arson Science & Investigation

The Texas Forensic Science Commission [TFSC] was established by the state in 2005 to investigate complaints of negligence or misconduct in forensics analysis. After the Innocence Project took up the Willingham case, the TFSC announced in 2008 that it would investigate the forensics used to convict Willingham. Updates on the TFSC's probe are posted here.

The Innocence Project, which works to exonerate the wrongfully convicted, offers a brief history of the TFSC and the Willingham case here, along with key documents, including Craig Beyler's 2009 report to the commission [PDF] that calls the science used in the Willingham case "folklore." The Innocence Project also chronicles cases of "unvalidated or improper" forensic science, and spearheads "Just Science," an initiative that offers recommendations for forensic reform in the criminal justice system.

On Sept. 9, 2009, the Senate Committee on the Judiciary held a hearing "Strengthening Forensic Science in the United States." Sen. Russ Feingold (D-Wisc.) raised the issue of arson science in the Willingham case. You can download the testimonies of the six witnesses and watch a webcast of the hearing here.

Arson expert John Lentini's website Scientific Fire Analysis hosts his publications on arson science. They include "The Lime Street Fire: Another Perspective," [PDF] in which he contests traditional understandings of burn patterns through a series of tests. You can also explore multimedia, including video from this and other tests he had conducted. And, listen to this NPR interview, in which Lentini discusses the Willingham case and some of the advances in fire analysis.

In the December 2010 issue of Reason, Radley Balko analyzes John Lentini's call for bifurcated trials in arson cases -- one trial to determine whether a crime was committed, followed by another trial to determine who committed it. Balko posits that though bifurcated trials are a "fairly radical idea," they could narrow the odds of convicting innocent people.

The Death Penalty Debate

The Willingham case has factored heavily in the debate over capital punishment, particularly in Texas. The website for FRONTLINE's 1999 film The Execution offers influential arguments for or against the death penalty, legal and cultural explanations for Texas's status as the state with the highest number of executions, the history of the death penalty and other related resources.

The controversy over the testimony of inmate Johnny Webb in the Willingham case -- his testimony in Willingham's trial, his recantation of that testimony, and his subsequent recantation of his recantation -- illuminates a national debate over the use of testimony for which a witness, particularly a witness who faces criminal charges or is already serving time, has incentive to lie. The Northwestern University School of Law's Center on Wrongful Convictions published this report [PDF] profiling 15 cases in which "snitch" or incentivized testimony was used to sentence to death individuals who were later exonerated. The report contends that snitch testimony is the leading cause of wrongful convictions in capital cases and argues for reform.

The Death Penalty Information Center, a nonprofit organization offering analysis and information on issues related to capital punishment has a helpful timeline and state-by-state breakdowns. You can explore its analysis of Texas here. The website of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice offers statistics and breakdowns about those on death row, including breakdowns by race and gender, as well as the dates scheduled for executions.

On Dec. 13, 2010, The Texas Tribune reported on a study by the Texas Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty. Among its findings: Texas juries sent eight people to death in 2010 -- the lowest number since the death penalty was reinstated in 1976 -- and the number of death sentences handed down in the state dropped 70 percent since 2003.

The U.S. Department of Justice's Bureau of Justice Statistics offers statistics on capital punishment cases nationwide, and Gallup has published the statistical results of its public opinion polling on capital punishment, including breakdowns of opinion given type of crime and different conditions of the convicted.

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posted october 19, 2010; updated december 3, 2010; updated december 13, 2010

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