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Friday, November 06, 2009

Willingham's trial and the state of the art of forensic fire science

Via an op-ed article in the New York Times, I learnt about the story of Cameron Willingham.

The State of Texas executed Mr Willingham in 2004 for the deaths of his three children by arson at their family home. An arson investigation by Dr Craig Beyler conducted in 2009 says that there was no scientific evidence what so ever that the house fire was intentionally set but that all revised evidence points that it was an accidental fire. It is terrifying that the State of Texas may have executed an innocent man.

This is an upsetting and horrible story, from many points of view, but the one related to this blog is fire science. I think many people will also find it a required case study for those working in fire, to learn from past mistakes, improve the field and avoid repeating it at all costs.

The story is best told in this recent article by David Grann in The New Yorker:
*Trial by Fire: Did Texas execute an innocent man?*. There is also a summary video and an audio commentary.

Dr Guillermo Rein

PD: The governor of Texas has replaced three members of that commission and is still saying in interviews that Willingham's execution was appropriate.

PPD: a community of about 30 volunteers has already been working on a public version of the events in wikipedia.

PPPD: The on-going case of Kevin Sweeney in the Netherlands is scarily similar to Willingham's. This case could be an accidental smouldering fire, which is my research expertise. I know first hand about the inability of many fire experts to see the importance of smouldering as the initiation event to a later flaming fire. That despite smouldering being the leading cause of fire deaths in residential areas in US and other western countries.

PPPPD: An important reading on the state of forensic science is the US National Academies report. A shorter piece that offers similar criticisms is in Popular mechanics.

1 comment:

dudleysharp said...

It is best to fact check:

Cameron Todd Willingham: Media meltdown & the death penalty:"Trial by Fire: Did Texas execute an innocent man?", by David Grann

Other articles on the Cameron Todd Willingham case