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The Source: Flawed Arson Science May Have Wrongfully Convicted Texans

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Yesterday, the retrial of Ed Graf got underway in Waco. Imprisoned for 25 years, Ed Graf was convicted in 1988 of setting the fire that killed his two stepsons. A change in the forensic science of arson has shown that the chances the fire was intentionally set are slim. 

Graf is just one of several cases being reevaluated by the State Fire Marshal's Office. Their Texas Forensic Science Commission, working with the Innocence Project of Texas, has identified several cases of people convicted of arson that may have in fact been accidental. The fact that the state has taken the lead on this project differs in tone from the defensive posture they have taken in the past. 

This is not the first nor the most famous of Texas' junk fire science cases. Many still remember the case of Cameron Todd Willingham. A new FRONTLINE special airs tonight at 9 PM on KLRN highlighting and updating the case against Willingham. The film is a stunning indictment of the process and what passed for science in the case. 

Accused of setting the fire that killed his three children, Willingham was executed in 2004. The strongest evidence against him was the forensic report stating the fire was the result of arson and the testimony of a jailhouse informant.

Before his execution the state was given a report by a leading fire scientist, Gerald Hurst, arguing all 20 arson indicators highlighted by the state were wrong. Since his execution a state commission verified that the 20 indicators were the result of bad science, and 8 other national leading fire science experts have come to the same conclusion. 

Additionally, jailhouse informant Johnny Webb has recanted his confession, saying he was told what to say by the Navarro County prosecutor, John Jackson, who would help reduce his sentence for a robbery conviction. Jackson denies the allegations but a formal complaint was filed by the Innocence Project and is under review by the Texas State Bar. 

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Credit Innocence Project
Interview with Johnny Webb appearing in appendices of complaint against Novarro County Prosecutor John H. Jackson

Guests:

  • Chris Connelly, state fire marshal of Texas
  • Nick Vilbas, executive director of the Innocence Project of Texas
  • Jessie Deeter, director of the FRONTLINE documentary "Death By Fire 2"

*Correction: an earlier version of this story said Ed Graf was convicted in 1986 of arson. Graf was convicted in 1988; the fire occurred in 1986.

Paul Flahive can be reached at Paul@tpr.org and on Twitter at @paulflahive