August 6, 2014

State’s fire marshal to let advocacy group scrutinize cases

The Innocence Project of Texas will investigate arson cases to identify possible wrongful convictions and to try weed out problems with fire investigations overall.

The Texas state fire marshal will allow the Innocence Project of Texas to review more than a decade of cases investigated by his office to identify possible wrongful convictions.

The fire marshal’s office has already sent 24 case files from 2002 to 2004 to the project.

Fire Marshal Chris Connealy said he intends to let the advocacy group review all his cases up to this year.

“Why not?” Connealy told The Associated Press in an interview last week. “We serve the public. And I want the public to have confidence in the criminal justice system.”

That confidence has been tested by challenges to several high-profile arson cases in Texas, most notably the case of Cameron Todd Willingham, who was executed in 2004 for killing his three daughters in a 1991 house fire in Corsicana. Willingham maintained his innocence, and supporters say evidence suggests that he was wrongfully executed.

Several fire science experts have criticized the findings of fire investigators who concluded that the blaze was set intentionally, and a jailhouse informant who testified that Willingham confessed to killing his daughters has recanted.

While efforts to press Willingham’s case continue after his death, Connealy’s office and criminal justice advocates have agreed to work together to weed out problems with fire investigations overall.

Connealy has been working with the Innocence Project of Texas for more than a year to review old cases.

He agreed to create a panel of fire experts to review cases brought by the group and flagged five of them, including three murder cases. The panel said the fire investigations in those cases did not meet the standards of modern science.

The panel sent its findings to the prosecutors of those cases, some of which are on appeal.

With the review of those cases finished, Connealy offered to let the state Innocence Project read through all his old files, which include investigation reports and other documents prepared for trial, to look for any problems. So far, none have been found.

The files are a small fraction of all arson cases in Texas. The state fire marshal’s office is not typically called to help in larger cities or counties that investigate fires in their jurisdictions.

The collaboration between fire marshal and advocates has faced some criticism.

Rod Ponton, district attorney in Pecos County in far West Texas, filed a brief last year with the state attorney general’s office after the panel of fire experts found problems with the investigation in the arson murder case of Sonia Cacy, who has appealed her conviction.

“The office of the State Fire Marshal should determine scientific standards for fire investigations,” Ponton said. “It has no authority to make sweeping legal pronouncements on 20-year-old criminal cases.”

The attorney general’s office rejected Ponton’s argument and affirmed the panel’s authority.

Nick Vilbas, executive director of the Innocence Project of Texas, said the fire marshal’s office and advocates have the same goal of seeking justice.

“As long as we trust each other and work together, I don’t think there’s any issue there,” Vilbas told the AP on Tuesday. “We both have a common goal of seeing that justice is done for those who have been convicted on the basis of outdated arson science.”

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