From NCRJ President, Michael R. Snedeker.
Governor Rick Perry’s abrupt dissolution of the Texas Forensic Science Commission on the eve of its decision in the Cameron Todd Willingham case was an effort to cover up a state-sanctioned murder. (see, Trial by Fire,” by David Grann: New Yorker, September 7, 2009) The botched investigation of Willingham’s suspected arson recalls the sex abuse scandals that began during the same period — the early 1980s and early 1990s — and whose legacy endures to this day. People continue to be convicted of crimes that very likely never happened, based on theories that experts called scientific but which later research has shown to be nonsensical, even medieval.
As in the sexual allegations, purported crime victims in fatal, accidental home fires tend to be young children. The mere suspicion of “harm to minors” awakens deep-seated fears that stifle common sense. Willingham’s prosecutors suggested he was a member of a Satanist cult. The evidence: his heavy-metal rock posters. Day care prosecutions featured expert assertions that the accused were sociopaths and Satanists.
Shoddy arson investigations are getting scrutiny now because Willingham was executed. False convictions of child sexual abuse do not end in capital punishment (though legislatures have tried). Instead, people who are almost certainly innocent have been sentenced to centuries of time in prison. Some–including Fran and Danny Keller in Texas and James Toward and Francisco Fuster in Florida–are still there almost a generation later. The first accused daycare teacher, Bernard Baran, in Massachusetts, was finally released after 22 years and exonerated three years later. Others are released from prison, only to end up on sex offender registries. Junk science didn’t literally kill these people, but it has stolen their lives. Their cases constitute a grave injustice, and desperately need review.
President, National Center for Reason and Justice