Emmanuelle Purdon

Were Texas prosecutors blinded by "tunnel vision"?

on 07 October 2009

The Dallas Morning news reports of four Texas arson cases under scrutiny, following the highly controversial Willingham case in which respectable fire experts all concluded that evidence used to convict and execute Cameron Todd Willingham was based on debunked science. 

It is now widely acknowledged that although Willingham was executed in 2004, he was surely innocent, and four new cases are now under the spotlight:

  • Ernest Willis

The police concluded that Willis was guilty, based on a polygraph test, the "evidence" that flammable material had been used, and that the "evidence" that the fire had started in different origin points.

However they failed to find accelerants. The burn marks and the "pour patterns" and rapid spread that were attributed to arson are now widely understood to occur in accidental fires. Ernest Willis released from death row in 2004, the same year as Willingham was executed.

  • Ed Graf

Graf was convicted and sentenced to life, on the basis of testimonies from investigators saying that gasoline had been poured on a backyard shed floor where his two stepsons aged 8 and 9 were playing in 1986. The two boys died in the fire. Additional evidence was the $50 000 insurance policies that Graf had taken out on each boy two months before the blaze.

However, it appears that the entire crime was bulldozed. Neighbors substantiated that the boys had frequently been in trouble for playing with fire. Highly flammable furniture was stored in the shed. The burn patterns identified by investigators as proof of a gasoline pattern are no longer considered credible evidence of arson.

Graf remains in prison with his appeals all but exhausted.

  • Garland Leon "Butch" Martin

Martin's wife and their daughter and her son were killed in a house fire. Paramedics testified that they smelled charcoal lighter fluid on Martin when they took him to a hospital. Doctors reported evidence of blunt trauma to his wife and her son, probably before the fire was set. Investigators detected a pour pattern of flammable liquids on the floor and trace amounts of what was probably lamp oil found near a bedroom wall, where they said the fire started.

However, other witnesses reported no unusual smells. The injuries to Martin's wife and her son are common results of carbon monoxide poisoning. The "pour patterns" can occur in accidental patterns. The trace amounts of liquid also could have come from numerous household products. Other experts suspected the fire started on a back porch, where an extension cord connected to a refrigerator. Martin is currently serving a life term on 3 counts of capital murder.

  • Curtis Severns

In 2004, Severns was called by a security company which told him his Plano gun shop was on fire. He was found guilty and is now serving a 25 year sentence in prison, based on the findings that the fire had started in 3 different places and that the alarm had set off only 23 minutes after he had left his shop, which was struggling financially.

However, several experts believe the fire began from a frayed cord from a fan. The multiple origins could have been caused by aerosol cans that bounced around and spewed from the heat of the fire. Also, ceiling tiles might have ignited and fallen in those spots. Severns had recently reduced insurance coverage on the shop. He and his wife earned good money and had healthy savings.

John Maki's interesting comment in the Huffington Post, makes us all wonder: would the prosecutors and the police happen to suffer sometimes from a "tunnel vision" syndrome?

He writes:

 "When most of us read Willingham's story, we want to find a villain or conspiracy to blame. But Willingham's story points to a broader, uncomfortable truth about our criminal justice system. While the path to Willingham's wrongful execution was paved by profound incompetence and reckless disregard for human life, Texas' authorities clearly believed they had convicted and executed a guilty man.

"So it is with many wrongful convictions. Even when there is compelling evidence of actual innocence, it can be almost impossible to shake a mistaken but firmly held belief in a convicted person's guilt. Legal scholars call this phenomenon 'tunnel vision'. It is an impulse created by institutional and psychological pressures. If unchallenged, tunnel vision can drive judges, prosecutors, jury members, and even defense attorneys to view the facts of a case through preconceived assumptions about a person's guilt or innocence, and reject or distort facts that fail to support them.

"This is not meant in any way to excuse the Texas officials responsible for Willingham's death. Tunnel vision is a useful concept because it gives us a way to understand how wrongful convictions happen, to hold officials accountable for failing to challenge faulty assumptions, and to correct future miscarriages of justice."

One question remains: will anyone ever be courageous enough to admit their own mistakes?

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