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Nizam Peerwani

Forensic Science Commission to examine bite mark evidence

Good.

The board charged with ensuring that reliable scientific evidence is used in Texas courtrooms agreed on Friday to investigate cases in which bite mark analysis was used to secure a conviction.

“We’re talking about the whole field, the validity of the field of bite marks,” said Dr. Vincent DiMaio, the chief presiding officer at the Texas Forensic Science Commission, and the former Dallas County medical examiner. “The problem justifies an investigation.”

The board voted to review bite mark cases to determine whether faulty evidence resulted in wrongful convictions after a presentation from Chris Fabricant, director of strategic litigation at the New York-based Innocence Project.

Last year, the American Academy of Forensic Sciences conducted a study of forensic odontologists and concluded that the analysis could not even accurately determine which marks were bite marks. In 2009, the National Academy of Sciences published a report that concluded there was insufficient scientific basis to conclusively match bite marks. Additionally, the Jo Handelsman, the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, has said that bite mark evidence should be eradicated from courtrooms.

Bite mark evidence, Fabricant said, has contributed to 24 wrongful convictions nationally, including two in Texas.

“Overwhelmingly, it was the chief evidence in those cases,” he said. “Sometimes, it turned out they weren’t bite marks at all.”

[…]

The Innocence Project is urging the commission to institute a moratorium on the use of forensic odontology in criminal cases.

Dr. Nizam Peerwani, a commission member and the chief medical examiner in Tarrant County, said his agency abandoned the practice more than two decades ago. He recalled one instance in which a dentist identified a bite mark that turned out to be an injury from a crow bar.

“We have no respect, absolutely no regard for bite marks,” Peerwani said.

Grits has been on this for years. I’m a lifelong fan of crime fiction, and I know I’ve read more than a few examples of literary detectives using this technique. I’m surprised there are more cases that will need to be reviewed. Anyway, isn’t it amazing how much good work a body like the Forensic Science Commission can get done when people like John Bradley aren’t around to muck things up?

Forensic Science Commission accepts its neutering

Another victory for the forces of obstructionism.

Whether they like it or not, members of the Texas Forensic Science Commission [Thursday] agreed that they will use an attorney general’s opinion that severely limits the panel’s jurisdiction as a guideline for future investigations. What that means for the Cameron Todd Willingham investigation — the commission’s most important and controversial case — will be up for discussion Friday.

“While it is not binding on us, [the opinion] does carry some weight,” said commissioner Lance Evans, a criminal defense lawyer from Fort Worth.

Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott wrote in July that the commission could not investigate evidence gathered or tested before it was established Sept. 1, 2005. He also concluded that the commission’s authority is limited to labs accredited by the Department of Public Safety. The commission met Thursday for the first time since that ruling and since the appointment of Dr. Nizam Peerwani, the Tarrant County medical examiner, as its chairman.

[…]

Commissioner Evans said he was hopeful that lawmakers would pass a bill during the next legislative session that clarifies and expands the commission’s role. A bill that would have done that this year failed during the final days of the legislative session.

Until that happens, the commissioners said they would use Abbott’s opinion to make case-by-case decisions about which cases to investigate. As they discussed new complaints and whether to investigate them, the commissioners said they would begin sending more specific and detailed letters explaining why certain cases are not investigated.

One such complaint they discussed Thursday was brought by Sonia Cacy. She was convicted in 1993 of dousing her uncle, Bill Richardson, in gasoline and igniting an inferno that killed him. She was sentenced to 99 years in prison, but she was released on parole after just six years. Arson expert Gerald Hurst — the same scientist who analyzed evidence in the Willingham case — reviewed the evidence that landed Cacy in prison. He concluded that there was no gasoline on Richardson’s clothing.

The commission decided to dismiss Cacy’s complaint against the investigators, despite serious reservations about the science used to convict her (Cacy remains on parole). The evidence was gathered and tested long before September 2005, and the lab used to analyze it was not accredited.

“If we are to abide by the opinion, we are left no other alternative other than to dismiss the [complaint],” [commissioner Sarah] Kerrigan said. “I hate to think the credibility of the commission is at stake.”

Unfortunately, it is, and the Attorney General has decided that it’s better for the Commission to be a do-nothing. See here for the background. I can only hope that Sens. Ellis and Hinojosa are able to push through a bill that overrides the AG’s bogus ruling in the next session. More from the Trib on the Commission’s meeting is here, and Dave Mann offers some perspective.

Dr. Peerwani and the Willingham case

Dr. Nizam Peerwani, the newly appointed Chair of the Forensic Science Commission, gets profiled in the Trib. Most of the story is about the history of the Willingham case, which the Commission finally sort of dealt with last year.

With a smile and a friendly laugh, Dr. Nizam Peerwani offers coupons for free autopsies to visitors to his office.

Death and the science of it have dominated Peerwani’s 30-year career in the Tarrant County medical examiner’s office. Now, Peerwani is taking on a very live controversy as chairman of the Texas Forensic Science Commission: the continuing investigation into the arson science that led to the conviction and 2004 execution of Cameron Todd Willingham.

“His background and his temperament give him the unique ability to make sure the commission is focused on the science of forensics instead of the science of politics,” said Sen. Rodney Ellis, D-Houston, who helped created the nine-member commission in 2005.

[…]

In April, three years after it began its investigation, the commission published some of its findings. It made significant recommendations to improve future arson investigations, but did not decide whether the Willingham arson investigators were professionally negligent, which was its original charge.

Commissioners declined to rule on that until the Texas attorney general decides whether the panel has jurisdiction to investigate cases including Willingham’s that occurred before its creation in 2005. A ruling is expected by the end of this month.

Peerwani said he agreed with experts who testified before the board that the arson science used to convict Willingham was seriously flawed. But asked whether Willingham was guilty or innocent, he was less definitive. “There were other issues,” he said of what lead to Willingham’s conviction. “There were eyewitness accounts; there were hospital and doctor testimony given and investigative findings.”

[…]

Barry Scheck, co-founder and co-director of the Innocence Project, said he was heartened by Peerwani’s appointment. Early on in the Willingham investigation, Peerwani agreed with other experts that not only was the science faulty but that forensic examiners had an ethical duty to inform prosecutors of potential flaws in their work.

That, Scheck said, gets at the heart of the matter. When the Innocence Project asked the commission to review the Willingham case, the main purpose was to establish whether the science used was faulty. And if it was, to find other cases in which the same faulty science might have led to wrongful convictions.

If the attorney general rules that the commission cannot review older cases, he said, an unknown number of inmates convicted based on so-called junk science will have little opportunity to seek justice.

“It would be extremely troublesome,” Scheck said. “We’d be back to square one.”

Obviously, almost anyone would have been an improvement over professional hack/Perry toady John Bradley, but the reactions from folks like Scheck and Sen. Ellis are especially encouraging. This really is supposed to be about evaluating procedures to ensure that they’re rigorous and not a bunch of handed-down folk tales. If the FSC pursues that, and doesn’t get needlessly blocked from reviewing old cases, it will be a major step forward, if only to get us back to where we were always supposed to be.

Perry appoints Forensic, SBOE Chairs

The new SBOE Chair is not who I expected.

State Board of Education member Barbara Cargill, R-The Woodlands, will take the helm as the board’s new chairwoman, Gov. Rick Perry announced Friday.

She will follow Gail Lowe, who was appointed chairwoman two years ago but did not win Senate confirmation during the just-concluded legislative session. Lowe, who returns to her seat as an elected member of the board, also got the position when her predecessor, Don McLeroy, failed to get Senate confirmation in 2009.

I figured Perry would pick David Bradley. I’m sure he has his reasons for going a different route. Cargill is part of the same social conservative bloc, but off the top of my head I can’t think of anything horrible she’s done. Fortunately, we have the Texas Freedom Network to keep track of these things, and their Cargill files can be found here. We’ll see if she can break the streak of non-confirmed SBOE Chairs; she has nearly two full years to convince the Senate that she’s not just another nutjob.

Meanwhile, Perry also named a new Chair of the Forensic Science Commission.

Gov. Rick Perry today announced he has appointed Dr. Nizam Peerwani, a well-known Fort Worth medical examiner, to lead the Texas Forensic Science Commission.

Peerwani, who has served on the commission since 2009, will replace Williamson County District Attorney John Bradley as leader of the panel that has been embroiled in controversy practically since its inception. Bradley, a law-and-order prosecutor, failed to win Senate confirmation during the legislative session that ended last month.

[…]

Peerwani, who was appointed to the commission at the same time as Bradley, is chief medical examiner for Tarrant, Denton, Johnson and Parker counties. His term will expire “at the pleasure of the governor.”

Well, at least he’s a scientist. The Commission could use more of a scientific influence these days. I presume Dr. Peerwani will need to be confirmed as Chair as well in 2013. At this time, I have no particular reason to believe that he will have any difficulty with that. At least, I sure hope that’s the case. Grits has more.

Forensic Science Commission to finally get back to Willingham case

It’s sure taken them long enough.

After months of delay and internal upheaval, the revamped Texas Forensic Science Commission is poised to reopen discussion of the Cameron Todd Willingham case when it meets April 23 in Irving.

Tarrant County Medical Examiner Nizam Peerwani, appointed to the panel in December, is likely to play a central role in the inquiry to determine whether a flawed arson investigation led to Willingham’s execution in 2004.

The commission also includes two other members from Fort Worth: defense attorney Lance Evans and Jay Arthur Eisenberg, a professor and chairman of the department of forensic and investigative genetics at the University of North Texas Health Science Center at Fort Worth.

The meeting will mark the first time that the commission has revisited the Willingham case since a membership shake-up halted the inquiry more than six months ago.

“I think the commission is looking forward to being able to get down to work,” said Evans, who was appointed in October.

[…]

Peerwani said that the screening committee has scheduled a meeting for Thursday in his Fort Worth office but that members of the second panel who were assigned to the Willingham case have yet to get together. It remains unclear to what extent the Willingham panel will rely on the previous work of the original commission, but Peerwani hopes that the panel won’t have to start from scratch.

“We do have a lot of material that the commission has collected,” said Peerwani, who has been Tarrant County’s medical examiner for 30 years. “I don’t think we have to go back and restart all those investigations.”

But “it’s still up in the air. I don’t know what the commission is going to do,” he said.

[…]

One crucial element from the original inquiry was a report that was prepared for the commission by Baltimore fire expert Craig Beyler, who concluded that the arson investigation that led to Willingham’s conviction was based on outmoded techniques and could not sustain a finding of arson.

The commission agreed to look into the case after receiving a complaint from The Innocence Project, a New York-based advocacy group, in December 2006.

Beyler, whom the commission hired December 2008, submitted his report in August 2009 and was scheduled to appear at a commission hearing that was abruptly canceled after the membership shake-up in September. Beyler told the Star-Telegram late last week that he has not been invited to the upcoming meeting.

If you’re thinking that this sounds suspiciously like John Bradley continuing to do what he can to delay and obfuscate matters relating to the Willingham inquiry, you’re not alone. Grits sees it that way, and he thinks the Commission should call for a motion to reconsider a vote it took to create a special screening committee that includes Bradley as a member at their January meeting on the grounds that it was made under false premises. That ought to liven things up.