STUDIES: Errors by Texas Medical Examiners Led to Wrongful Convictions

A recent investigaton by the Fort Worth Star-Telegram uncovered a series of mistakes by medical examiners in Texas. “Medical examiners have goofed up eye color and gender. They’ve made mistakes on the locations of scars or tattoos, described gallbladders and appendixes that had long since been removed – even confused one body for another,” noted the story.  Webb County Chief Medical Examiner Corinne Stern was criticized for an autopsy she performed on an infant while she was working in Alabama. Her report indicated that the infant was suffocated, but other experts concluded “her finding was based on junk science and that the [baby] was stillborn.”  Following the experts' report, the capital murder charge against the baby’s mother was dropped.

In 2007, former Travis County medical examiner Roberto Bayardo recanted his original testimony that helped convict Austin baby-sitter Cathy Lynn Henderson of capital murder and placed her on death row for the death of a baby. Twelve years earlier, Dr. Bayardo had testified that the baby’s cause of death was from receiving intentional blows. His new testimony said it was unclear what had happened and Henderson may have accidentally dropped the child.  "The work of the medical examiner's office is just so slipshod," said Tommy Turner, the former special prosecutor who put a Lubbock medical examiner behind bars for falsifying autopsies.


Texas Governor Replaces Members of Commission Examining Possible Wrongful Execution

On September 30, Texas Governor Rick Perry replaced the chairman and two members of a state commission that is investigating whether inaccurate evidence of arson was presented at the trial of Cameron Todd Willingham,  who was executed in 2004. The state’s Forensic Science Commission was scheduled to conduct a public hearing in two days and receive testimony from Craig Beyler, a nationally known expert who called the Willingham investigation “slipshod,” and concluded that “almost all of the evidence presented [w]as based on junk science.” Beyler's report for the Commission concluded that “no credible evidence existed to believe that the fire, that killed three children, was caused by arson.”



No New Trial despite Judge-Prosecutor Affair

The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals ruled on September 16 that death row inmate Charles Hood is not entitled to a new trial despite the fact that the judge and the prosecutor from his trial had been having an affair.  In a 6-to-3 decision, the court held that Hood should have raised the argument that the affair tainted his trial in earlier appeals of his 1990 murder conviction.  The court's decision reverses the findings of a district court that held Hood should be given a hearing on a new trial. The case has created concerns among several former judges, prosecutors, and legal experts who have said that it is impossible to know if Hood received a fair trail. "For the state of Texas to ignore undisputed evidence of an improper relationship that violated Mr. Hood's constitutional rights to a fair trial is inexplicable and a betrayal of justice," said Sam D. Millsap, former district attorney in San Antonio, Texas. "It is an irrevocable wrong to put a man to death when a cloud of uncertainty and misconduct looms overhead."  

Arson Cases in Texas Under Broader Review

In 2004 Cameron Todd Willingham was executed in Texas for murdering his children by arson.  Since then, numerous forensic fire experts have concluded that the evidence of arson presented at Willingham's trial could not support the conclusion that he caused the fire.  That same year, Ernest Willis was freed from death row in Texas after the prosecution concluded that his conviction and death sentence for arson were mistaken.  Texas has 742 offenders in state prisons for arson, and about 275 more defendants are convicted of the crime each year.  Sen. Rodney Ellis, D-Houston, who has pushed to create a commission in Texas to explore questionable convictions, noted,  "As scientific methods improve," he said, "it's a distinct possibility that we're going to find more problems in the criminal justice system."  One of the experts who examined the evidence in the Willingham case and disputes the claims of arson is Gerald Hurst, a Cambridge-educated chemist, who said, "Accidental fires being turned into arsons is going on all the time."  He believes the core of the problem is that investigators – most of whom began as police officers and firefighters – have no science background.

Texas Inmate Freed From Death Row With Charges Dismissed

Former death row inmate Michael Toney was freed from prison in Texas on September 2 after the state's Attorney General asked that his death sentence and criminal charges be dismissed.  Toney was sentenced to death for a fatal bombing in 1985 that occurred at a trailer park in Lake Worth.  He has always maintained his innocence, and there was no physical evidence leading to his conviction.  His conviction and death sentence were overturned by the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals nine months ago after it was revealed that the state had withheld critical evidence that might have led the jury to a different conclusion at his trial in 1999.  The attorney general took over the case after the Tarrant County district attorney's office recused itself in January because of the withheld evidence.

Reaction to Execution of a Probably Innoncent Man Grows

Recent scientific reports indicating that Texas likely executed an innocent man have spurred wide coverage and commentary. Cameron Todd Willingham was executed in 2004 for the arson murder of his three children.  Fire experts now say the blaze was likely an accident. Excerpts from coverage:

New York Times Editorial, August 31, 2009, "Questions About an Execution":

People should have no illusions about the brutal injustice of the death penalty after all of the exonerations in recent years from DNA evidence, but the case of Cameron Todd Willingham is still shocking.

Mr. Willingham was executed for setting a fire that killed his 2-year-old daughter and 1-year-old twins, but a fire expert hired by the State of Texas has issued a report casting enormous doubt on whether the fire was arson at all. The Willingham investigation, which is continuing, is further evidence that the criminal justice system is far too flawed to justify imposing a death penalty.
. . .
The commission is to be commended for conducting this inquiry, but it is outrageous that Texas is conducting its careful, highly skilled investigation after Mr. Willingham has been executed, rather than before.

INNOCENCE: "Trial by Fire: Did Texas Execute an Innocent Man?"

In a thorough and penetrating article published in The New Yorker on August 31, David Grann offers further evidence that Texas probably executed an innocent man in 2004. Grann carefully examines all the evidence that was used in the two-day trial in 1992 to convict Cameron Todd Willingham of murder by arson of his three young children.  It is now well established through a series of investigations by other fire experts that the forensic evidence of arson presented at trial had no scientific basis and should not have led to Willingham's conviction.  Another piece of evidence used at trial was the testimony of a jailhouse informant who said that Willingham had confessed to the crime, despite the fact that he had always maintained his innocence and even refused a plea bargain to avoid the death penalty.  The informer eventually received early release, tried to recant his testimony, and is now no longer sure what he heard.  He also suffers from mental disorders.  Willingham's lawyers thought he was 100% guilty and offered no rebuttal expert to question the finding of arson.  At the sentencing hearing, the prosecution put on a psychiatrist, Dr. James Grigson, who made a living helping to send defendants to death row by testifying to their future dangerousness without even interviewing them.  Dr. Grigson said that Willingham was an "extremely severe sociopath," words similar to those he used to describe Randall Dale Adams, who was eventually exonerated following an investigation by documentary filmmaker Errol Morris, portrayed in the film "A Thin Blue Line."

Ongoing Investigation of Texas Execution Throws New Doubt on Defendant's Guilt

According to the Chicago Tribune, the Texas Forensic Science Commission has received a report from a nationally known fire scientist that casts doubt on the guilt of Cameron Todd Willingham (pictured) who was executed in Texas in February 2004.  Craig Beyler of Hughes Associates conducted a review for the Commission of the evidence used to convict Willingham of murder by arson, which led to his death sentence.  Beyler concluded the Texas fire investigators had no basis to rule that a deadly house fire that killed Willingham's children was an arson.  His report mirrors what other renowned experts have found over the past several years and is one step in a more thorough review being conducted by the Science Commission. Experts for the Chicago Tribune and the Innocence Project in New York have similarly concluded that the original investigators relied on outdated theories in calling the fire an arson.