By the time evidence finally surfaced clearing Cameron Todd Willingham of killing his three young daughters in an arson fire, it was too late. He had been executed in Texas in 2004 for setting the fatal 1999 fire, a crime pinned on him by overzealous prosecutors using sloppy fire science. According to the Innocence Project of Texas, “He always claimed his innocence, and the arson investigation used to convict him was questioned by leading experts before Willingham was executed. Since 2004, further evidence in the case has led to the inescapable conclusion that Willingham did not set the fire for which he was executed.”
Digging up that “further evidence” was in part the work of Texas Fire Marshal Chris Connealy, who took over the job in 2012 vowing that such an injustice would never again unfold on his watch. A lifelong firefighter and chief of both the Houston and Cedar Park fire departments, Connealy put together what he believes is the nation’s first Science Advisory Workgroup to dust off old arson cases and carefully scrutinize new ones.
In doing so, Connealy has essentially redefined what it means to be the fire marshal in his state. It hasn’t been a popular move in some quarters, with some local district attorneys pushing back hard on Connealy’s authority to reopen cases. “Basically DAs don’t like it when [Connealy] comes in and says, ‘A criminal court of appeals advises me that your case is crap,’” says workgroup member John DeHaan, a national expert on fire science.
Nor did they seem thrilled with Connealy’s decision to partner with the Innocence Project in reopening old and cold cases. “I came in with an open mind,” says Connealy of the partnership. “We share the same goal of making sure that justice is served.”
It’s not only justice -- and vastly improving forensic fire science -- that has proved a passion for Connealy. He’s also been a powerful voice for firefighter safety. In the wake of the 2013 West, Texas, fertilizer plant explosion that killed 10 first responders, Connealy took to the road, visiting each of the 68 Texas counties that have facilities containing significant amounts of ammonium nitrate. Part of his basic message, and one that can be tough for hardcore firefighters to swallow, is that “there are some fires that we have no business fighting,” Connealy says.
The toughest part of the tour, says Connealy, was going to West and meeting with the families of fallen firefighters. “We went there with findings that we really could have done better. And that’s a hard message to deliver.”
But delivering hard truths, whether in fighting fires or in getting smarter about arson science, has become a defining part of Connealy’s public service mission. -- By Jonathan Walters
Read about the rest of the Public Officials of the Year here.