By JEFF CARLTON
DALLAS -- A Texas panel on Friday declined to clear fire investigators of professional misconduct for determining that arson caused a 1991 fire that killed three girls and led to the conviction and execution of their father.
Instead, the Texas Forensic Science Commission planned to meet in November to question fire experts about the professional standards used by arson investigators in the early 1990s. The commissioners are withholding judgment on whether investigators were wrong to say arson caused the blaze.
That decision came over the fierce objections of the commission chairman, John Bradley, who was appointed last year by Gov. Rick Perry. Bradley urged his colleagues to determine the investigators acted appropriately, and at one point he raised his voice and accused the commissioners of "shirking their duties."
Bradley pushed his colleagues to reach a consensus. He argued that either there was insufficient evidence to determine professional misconduct or there was no misconduct, and therefore investigators met the standards of their day.
But the panel disagreed, saying there appeared to be evidence that the Corsicana Fire Department and the state fire marshal's office were not following the standards from the early 1990s.
The commission has nine members, seven of whom are forensics experts.
"Chairman Bradley is trying to resist the finding by this group of scientists that the science used at the time is insupportable and false," said Barry Scheck, who is a co-founder of the Innocence Project, a New York legal center specializing in wrongful convictions.
"Every expert that has looked at this said the science then was wrong."
A jury in Corsicana, south of Dallas, convicted Cameron Todd Willingham of capital murder in 1992. He was executed in 2004, when Perry was governor.
Testimony from fire investigators was the primary evidence against Willingham.
Judy Cavnar, Willingham's cousin, said she attended his execution and spoke to him 55 minutes before he died.
"He emphatically said, 'I did not set that fire. I did not kill my children,'" she said.