A state panel looking into the case of an executed Texas inmate issued its initial report Thursday but didn't rule on whether investigators correctly determined the 1991 fire that killed his three children was intentionally set.
Death penalty opponents argue that the case of Cameron Todd Willingham could be the first instance of a person wrongly executed in the U.S. since capital punishment resumed more than three decades ago. Several experts have concluded the fire was an accident or its cause was undetermined, but not arson.
The Texas Forensic Science Commission determines whether forensic science in such cases was sound, but it won't issue a finding on the arson ruling until the state attorney general determines whether it has jurisdiction to do so, said the panel's controversial chairman, John Bradley.
Bradley, who asked for the opinion earlier this year, said the attorney general has until July to issue a decision.
"I don't have any way of guessing that but look forward to seeing what they have to say," said Bradley, who has taken steps to slow the panel's work and has pushed its members to find there was no misconduct by the original fire investigators.
The commission's 47-page draft report, which was tediously reviewed Thursday during the panel's meeting in Austin, noted the "practical difficulties" for a negligence investigation of a case that occurred two decades ago.
"The substantial passage of time, limited record and the unavailability of at least one of the original fire investigators all add to the difficulty of conducting a thorough review," the report said.
The commission cannot exonerate Willingham or reopen his case, and insisted that nothing in its report "constitutes a comment upon the guilt or innocence of any individual."
His cousin, Patricia Ann Cox, attended the meeting with Willingham's mother and expressed frustration with "needless delays, questionable interruptions, scandalous manipulations over the five years we have been involved in this commission."
Regardless of whether the commission determines the case involved negligence or professional misconduct, "it will by no means complete our effort to clear Todd's name and get justice for him," Cox said, speaking for his family.
Prosecutors accused Willingham, 36, an unemployed mechanic, of setting the fire at his home in Corsicana, about 60 miles south of Dallas. A jury convicted him of capital murder and sent him to death row. His conviction was upheld nine times on appeal.
Willingham didn't testify at his trial but always insisted _ even in an obscenity-filled tirade the moment before his execution _ that he was innocent. He suggested the fire could have been started accidentally by his 2-year-old daughter, Amber, who died along with her 1-year-old twin sisters, Karmon and Kameron.
The commission determined that investigators at the scene reasonably concluded there was only a remote possibility that one of Willingham's children set the fire, citing their young age and the fact that no lighters were found near their bodies.
The report said no uniform standard of practice for state or local fire investigators existed in the early 1990s, and noted there were "few circumstances in which an investigation could not be improved with the benefit of 20 years of controlled scientific experiment and practical experience."
The report also noted the commission wasn't created to establish innocence or guilt, or as a forum "for debating the merits of capital punishment."
Another component of the case's review has been Bradley, the district attorney in Williamson County. He was appointed to lead the commission by fellow Republican Gov. Rick Perry, who refused to block Willingham's execution in 2004.
Bradley was put on the commission in 2009, just days before the panel was to hear Craig Beyler, a Baltimore, Md., fire expert critical of the original investigation.
Bradley has referred to Willingham as a "guilty monster," but has denied allegations of bias. He blamed the New York-based Innocence Project, which has been pushing the Willingham case, and other death penalty opponents as "politics and a circus sideshow."
His confirmation as board chairman has been stymied in the Texas Senate, where he's rankled some members and likely has doomed his continued presence on the panel once the Legislature completes its session next month.
The Innocence Project first raised questions about the case in 2006, two years after Willingham was executed. Its policy director, Stephen Saloom, bristled Thursday at the absence of references in the report to questions raised by experts about the arson investigation shortly before Willingham's death and how Perry refused to stop the execution.
In a nearly line-by-line dissection of the lengthy report, commission members agreed to add a generic reference to the questions. They also are reviewing more than a dozen recommendations that include calls for better education and training for arson investigators. The meeting is scheduled to continue Friday.
Saloom said the commission must find a way to instill public confidence.
"If they fail to respond to the actual allegation filed _ which this report almost completely does, by ignoring the fire marshal's continuing failure to inform the Texas criminal justice system that evidence it provided has now been deemed unreliable _ it will have failed to provide the specific justice in cases old and new," Saloom said.