The last shovelful of dirt is thrown.
The Texas Forensic Science Commission’s investigation of the science used to convict Cameron Todd Willingham — executed in 2004 for an arson that killed his three children — may be at an end after the state’s top attorney Friday ruled that the panel cannot consider evidence in cases older than 2005.
Attorney General Greg Abbott’s ruling is the latest development in the years-long controversy over the commission’s handling of the high-profile case. Advocates on both sides of the issue claimed the ruling as a victory, though it does narrow the scope of what the commission is allowed to investigate.
The commission’s former chairman, Williamson County District Attorney John Bradley, said the decision vindicated his argument that the commission did not have jurisdiction to investigate evidence in cases that occurred before lawmakers created the panel in 2005.
“We should be spending much more time focusing upon these modern forensic science issues,” said Bradley, who requested the ruling in January. Lawmakers did not confirm Bradley’s appointment this year, and so his term ended with the legislative session. “This AG opinion will correct the course of the Forensic Science Commission.”
Bradley had asked Abbott to rule on three issues: the broadness of the term “forensic analysis”; whether the Willingham case was in the commission’s jurisdiction; and if the commission could only investigate work done at labs accredited by the Department of Public Safety.
In his ruling, Abbott wrote that while the commission may investigate incidents that occurred before its creation in 2005, the law prevents it from considering evidence that was gathered or tested before that date. The commission’s authority also is limited only to DPS-accredited labs, Abbott wrote. And, the commission may not investigate fields of forensic science that are specifically excluded in the state’s code of criminal procedures.
Bradley said the ruling should close the commission’s investigation of the Willingham case, because it involved a fire that happened in 1991. “I think much of this involved distractions created by outside entities that had a different agenda, trying to read into this something that wasn’t there,” he said.
Yes, John Bradley successfully completed his mission to ensure that no official review of the Willingham case ever takes place. You’d think that given the extreme confidence that he and his patron Rick Perry have publicly professed about Willingham’s guilt that they would welcome any review, as it would only serve to prove them correct. I guess bravado has its limits. It really is amazing how much effort was expended to keep eyes and hands off of this case. You don’t have to know anything more about the case to wonder just what it is they’re so afraid of.
Those that have pushed for the Forensic Science Commission to keep doing the work it was created to do will keep pushing for it.
Stephen Saloom, policy director for the Innocence Project, said that although Abbott’s ruling limits the action the commission may take, it should not end the work on the Willingham case and others. He said the Fire Marshal’s office continued to use questionable arson investigative techniques after 2005, and the ruling makes clear that the commission has jurisdiction over those cases. And, Saloom said, the ruling doesn’t absolve others in the criminal justice system from their duty to investigate old cases in which questionable science was used.
“The AG opinion is absolutely without effect on the rest of the criminal justice system’s legal, moral and ethical responsibility make sure justice be done in all past arson cases,” he said.
State Sen. Rodney Ellis, D-Houston, is chairman of the Innocence Project and helped write the 2005 law that created the Forensic Science Commission. He said the ruling should not stop the Willingham investigation or prevent the commission from issuing a ruling that the Fire Marshall was negligent when it did not inform prosecutors and courts that it had used flawed science.
“They had that ‘duty to correct’ prior to 2005, when the Forensic Science Commission legislation took effect, and after 2005, and they have never done so,” he said. “They should inform the criminal justice system of their mistakes quickly, and I would encourage the Forensic Science Commission to make such a recommendation to ensure justice is served in Texas.”
It remains the case that ensuring that law enforcement agencies today are using valid forensic methods is the top priority. But there’s still a lot of people sitting in jail today that were convicted on bogus arson evidence. We owe them something that this opinion makes them much less likely to receive. Sen. Ellis’ full statement is beneath the fold.
Ellis Statement on AG Opinion on Scope of Forensic Science Commission Authority
Senator Rodney Ellis (D-Houston) released the following statement regarding the Attorney General Opinion on the scope of investigatory powers of the Forensic Science Commission:
“While I believe the Attorney General took a very narrow view in responding to the questions asked, I was happy to see him recognize that the Forensic Science Commission has the authority to investigate allegations of professional negligence or misconduct from incidents occurring prior to September 1, 2005.
“A major component of the complaint involving Ernest Willis and Cameron Willingham is the negligence of the Texas Fire Marshall’s Office in failing to inform prosecutors, defense lawyers, and the courts about the fact that it had used flawed arson science to convict hundreds or thousands of people. It failed to inform the Governor’s Office and the Board of Pardons and Parole as well, and as a result innocent people could be incarcerated today or may have been executed.
“Nothing in this Attorney General’s opinion prevents the Texas Forensic Science Commission from completing its report and ruling that the Fire Marshall was negligent when it failed in its “duty to correct” the flawed arson science that was used in numerous arson cases. They had that “duty to correct” prior to 2005, when the Forensic Science Commission legislation took effect, and after 2005, and they have never done so. They should inform the criminal justice system of their mistakes quickly, and I would encourage the Forensic Science Commission to make such a recommendation to ensure justice is served in Texas.”