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Can we please get back to the basics?

The ongoing saga of the Texas Forensic Science Commission:

Adding an unexpected twist to its investigation of the science used to convict and execute Cameron Todd Willingham for arson murder, the Texas Forensic Science Commission voted Friday to seek an attorney general opinion on the limits of its jurisdiction.

The commission is examining allegations, made by fire scientists and the Innocence Project of New York, that investigators relied on bad science and poor techniques to conclude that Willingham intentionally set fire to his Corsicana home in 1991, killing his three young daughters.

The City of Corsicana and the state fire marshal’s office, however, have long complained that the commission lacks the authority to examine their investigators’ actions and conclusions.

On Friday, as they contemplated drafting a final report in the Willingham matter, the nine commission members voted unanimously to ask Attorney General Greg Abbott’s office to determine whether Corsicana and the fire marshal are correct.

“It’s been the elephant in the room the entire time,” Commissioner Lance Evans said after the meeting in downtown Austin. Evans made the motion to seek Abbott’s opinion.

In the meantime, commissioners vowed to continue working toward a final report.

“I certainly think we could make findings … on the state of fire investigation back at that time, the evolution of fire investigation up to the present day and where mistakes might have been made,” said Evans, a Fort Worth defense lawyer.

To the best of my recollection, the FSC was created for two purposes. First and foremost, to evaluate the forensic techniques being used by Texas law enforcement agencies, to see if they were sufficiently modern and grounded in scientific principles for use in a courtroom. Second, if the answer to question 1 was “No” for something, to recommend standards that would then be adopted voluntarily or via legislative coercion if necessary. In the case of arson investigations, the clear and overwhelming answer to question 1 is “No”. If we had a commission chair, or a governor that’s responsible for appointing the commission chair, that cared about anything other than politics, we might be able to get to part two. But we don’t, so we’ll just keep wasting everybody’s time until either the Lege steps in (for good or for ill) or we all get too bored and frustrated with the process to give a damn about it. Grits has more.

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