The Innocence Project of Texas (IPTX) began its groundbreaking partnership with the State Fire Marshal's Office (SFMO) to conduct a retroactive review of arson convictions in Texas in the fall of 2011. This type of partnership and review is the first of its kind in Texas and the nation.
Major advancements were made in the fields of fire science and arson investigation in the late 1980's and 1990's, leading to many of the early arson indicators being debunked. Though this has been known for years, an effective way to address the issue and the subsequent wrongful convictions wasn't so easy to determine.
Through the commitment, hard work, and dedication of the Forensic Science Commission (FSC), State Fire Marshal's Office and IPTX, a model has been set for the rest of the nation to follow. Outdated or flawed arson evidence is not a Texas-specific problem, but through establishing meaningful relationships with stakeholders, Texas is leading the charge to reform arson investigations across the nation.
The arson debate in Texas came to a head in 2011 over the case of Cameron Todd Willingham. Complaints were filed on behalf of Willingham and Ernest Willis, two Texas arson cases that were very similar in terms of questionable evidence but wildly different in results. In 2004 Willis was exonerated while Willingham was executed. Despite the process becoming highly politicized, the FSC issued a comprehensive report in 2011.
Texas Forensic Science Commission Final Report - Willingham/Willis
In this report, the FSC made 17 recommendations regarding initiatives designed to improve arson investigations in Texas. While the recommendations range from increased training and funding to the adoption of uniform national standards, number two on the list was the call for retroactive review.
The joint review effort between the FSC, SFMO, and IPTX was agreed to in the fall of 2011, and the survey of cases began in January 2012. Though it had just begun, questions concerning the future of the review arose that same month after the State Fire Marshall resigned in late December. IPTX was undeterred and the search for wrongful arson convictions continued.
State Fire Marshal Resigns as Arson Inquiry Begins - Texas Tribune 1/9/2012
IPTX conducted our own survey of arson convictions in Texas several years prior, so we were aware of scope of the problem. We learned that a majority of convictions were either legitimate or did not involve outdated or flawed evidence, but we also learned that there was a number of cases with major issues and strong actual innocence claims.
This joint review received an injection of energy, credibility, and transparency and truly took off when the next State Fire Marshal, Chris Connealy, was hired. At the July 2012 FSC meeting, he informed the Commission that he would use the Commission's recommendations as a blueprint for reforming the agency, and even "go beyond them." He also pledged to continue the joint review with IPTX. Connealy wasted no time in his reform efforts and quickly began addressing each recommendation the FSC made.
The Texas Tribune Interview: Chris Connealy 8/16/2012
One of the key reform efforts the SFMO made was to establish the Science Advisory Workgroup (SAW) to review previous arson cases and provide feedback and expertise on current cases. The cases reviewed by the SAW are limited to SFMO-internal cases and cases submitted by IPTX. The SAW is a multidisciplinary group of experts in their respective fields. The SAW first met in January 2013 and has met three times to date.
Click HERE to learn more about the SFMO SAW and its members
Much progress has been made with four cases having been reviewed by the SAW and three IPTX cases receiving favorable findings from the panel. There are still a number of cases under review by the SAW and IPTX believes there will be several more actual innocence cases to come from the review.
To date, the IPTX review has involved the survey of 1085 Texas arson convictions, those who were currently in prison when the review began, with over 250 questionnaires being sent out. The list of cases was narrowed down to 35 for in-depth investigation. From that set of cases IPTX has submitted eight to the SAW for review, with five still under review. The three completed cases will be discussed more below. It is important to note that IPTX has not heard back from every inmate surveyed and this review did not include those who might be on parole, so while the results are promising, there could be more arson wrongful convictions out there that have not been identified yet. IPTX will continue the effort to locate and review those cases, then work to free those who have been wrongly convicted.
Editorial: Duty to correct bad arson cases
Not enough positive words can be said about the work of the Forensic Science Commission and the State Fire Marshal's Office throughout this process. Their commitment to justice and improving the state of forensic science and arson investigations in Texas is unparalleled. IPTX is honored to work with the FSC and SFMO in this effort and is proud to say that while Texas is home to many wrongful convictions and injustices, it is also leading the nation in the effort to improve arson investigations and rectify prior mistakes.
Cases with SAW Review Completed
Ed Graf - Graf was convicted of setting a 1986 fire in a Hewitt backyard shed that killed his eight and nine-year-old stepchildren. Investigators at the time alleged that Graf locked the boys in the shed and set fire to it using an accelerant. Experts, including one hired by prosecutors, have since reviewed the initial investigation and have determined that the earlier conclusions were mistaken and that the fire could have been an accident. The Court of Criminal Appeals overturned his conviction in March 2013. Despite the new findings, Graf remains incarcerated while the McLennan County authorities maintain that he will be retried.
Victim of Circumstance?
The Arson Files: Judge Recommends New Trial for Ed Graf
The Arson Files: Ed Graf Wins New Trial
Ed Graf Re-Trial: Texas DA To Retry 25-Year-Old Conviction In Deadly Fire Case
Sonia Cacy - Sonia Cacy was convicted in 1993 after she allegedly poured gasoline on her sleeping uncle and set him on fire. A Bexar County toxicologist told jurors that he found an accelerant like gasoline on his clothes. Cacy was sentenced to 99 years in prison but post conviction review of the evidence by a number of experts, including Dr. Gerald Hurst, was successful in securing her release on parole after she had served only six years. IPTX has been fighting for her full exoneration for a number of years and expect her case to be back in the courtroom soon.
Woman Charged With Murder Campaigns for Innocence
Burning Injustice - Dallas Observer
Why the District Attorney's Arson Case Against Sonia Cacy Remains Weak - Dallas Observer
Leading Fire Investigation Into the Twenty-first Century - Texas Monthly
Douglas Boyington - Boyington is currently serving a 75-year sentence for the 1988 arson at a Pasadena, Texas, apartment building. The SAW findings noted that original investigators "failed to meet the present-day scientific standards of care." Boyington's case will soon be heading back to court.
Texas fire review panel flags work in 2 cases
More Information on Arson Science and Investigations
The myths behind arson investigation
Arson Forensics Sets Old Fire Myths Ablaze
THE MYTHOLOGY OF ARSON INVESTIGATION