Texas panel to examine safeguards against wrongful convictions

AUSTIN -- A blue-ribbon panel named after a wrongfully convicted inmate from Fort Worth is beginning a prolonged mission toward reforming criminal justice in Texas, fueled by a ballooning controversy over the possibility that the state may have executed an innocent man.

The Tim Cole Advisory Panel on Wrongful Convictions will conduct its first meeting today, starting a yearlong effort toward recommending new safeguards against erroneous convictions.

The panel's review parallels an uproar over the shakeup of a state commission seeking to determine whether a flawed arson investigation led to the 2004 execution of Cameron Todd Willingham, an unemployed mechanic from Corsicana.

Cole was wrongfully convicted in 1986 and died in prison 13 years later before being posthumously exonerated this year. His brother, Cory Session, also of Fort Worth, said he plans to cite the Willingham case when he addresses the panel.

"It's hard to overlook the possibility that an innocent man was executed," Session said. "Just like my brother Tim till the day he died, they both said, 'I didn't do it.' We just can't take it lightly anymore when somebody says they're innocent."

Willingham was found guilty in the deaths of his three daughters in a 1991 fire. He said he was asleep in his house when the fire started and reasserted his innocence in a final statement before he was executed in 2004.

Corsicana officials have vigorously defended the investigation, pointing to inconsistencies in Willingham's statements and other factors. But nationally prominent fire expert Craig Beyler, in a report prepared for the Texas Forensic Science Commission, denounced the investigation into the fire at the Willingham home and said it didn't "sustain" a finding of arson.

The case touched off an uproar less than two weeks ago when Gov. Rick Perry dismissed three members of the commission, forcing the cancellation of a meeting to hear the Beyler report. On Friday, Perry dismissed a fourth member and named two new appointees, including Fort Worth attorney Lance Evans.

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