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Category: Editorials

Dallas Morning News: Willingham hearing imperfect but important

By , October 1, 2010

From the Dallas Morning News Editorial Board, October 1, 2010.

The questions surrounding the Cameron Todd Willingham case have become a constant drumbeat in Texas’ death penalty discussion. The underlying unknown: Did Texas err when it executed Willingham?

The case of a man who was put to death for arson murder of his three daughters has become the state’s most discussed, most studied and most maligned capital murder case. But despite an array of efforts to re-examine the questionable science that sent Willingham to his death, no legal determination has been made on whether he was wrongfully convicted.

That’s what state District Judge Charlie Baird aims to do, starting with a hearing on Wednesday.

This is a bold move by Baird – one that opens up the Travis County judge to plenty of criticism if he proceeds clumsily. But handled with care, this posthumous hearing has the potential to provide important information about the mistakes in this case and to expose weaknesses in Texas’ approach to the death penalty.

To ensure that opening this court of inquiry is a useful exercise, Baird must heed two cautions:

• Don’t rush to judgment. Baird faces no looming deadline and has no reason to speed through the complexities of arson science. He has scheduled a two-day hearing but should allow more time as needed to hear from witnesses and thoroughly examine evidence.

• Listen to both sides. While this seems obvious, it’s not clear whether Navarro County investigators and prosecutors who worked on this case will participate. Their perspective is essential to understanding the original Willingham verdict.

Gov. Rick Perry’s office has been quick to point out that Willingham’s conviction was upheld multiple times, suggesting that all of this is well-trod ground. But in fact, the appeals process is narrowly focused on ensuring that the defendant received a fair trial – not on examining new scientific evidence.

Post-trial accusations that Willingham investigators relied on folklore and junk science to find that the fire was arson weren’t examined on appeal. This week’s hearing will be the first time that a court has taken a hard look at whether relying on outdated arson science prompted the state to make a fatal error.

The Texas Forensic Science Commission also is considering related questions in the Willingham case. But commissioners are focused primarily on questions about professional negligence and standards for forensic investigators; their mission does not include a big-picture look at the entire case.

Baird’s challenge is to ensure that this hearing augments the commission’s work, rather than undermines it.

No court can say with certainty whether Willingham was innocent. But this re-examination of the case could expose flaws in the judicial system and guide future reforms.

This hearing, which comes six years after Willingham’s execution, is an imperfect approach. But perfection became impossible when the state executed Willingham with so many questions left unanswered.

Dallas Morning News Editorial: Forensic panel should push in defining ‘duty’ | News for Dallas, Texas | Dallas Morning News | Opinion: Editorials

By , September 21, 2010

Editorial: Forensic panel should push in defining ‘duty’ | News for Dallas, Texas | Dallas Morning News | Opinion: Editorials.

There appears to be little or no dissent among members of the Texas Forensic Science Commission that soon-to-be outdated science was used to build an arson-murder case that led to Cameron Todd Willingham’s execution.

The commission wisely decided last week to summon experts for face-to-face questioning on the state of arson science in 1992, when Willingham was convicted of setting the Corsicana fire that killed his three children.The key decision for the commission now is how to formalize that conclusion. It should send the strongest message possible to forensic investigators about their duty to justice.

Members are interested not only in the standards at the time but also whether emerging science had escaped the notice of Willingham investigators. It’s an obvious question: Were they diligent in staying abreast of their craft?

To their credit, a majority of commissioners want to push further: They want to sort out a forensic investigator’s responsibility when evolving science casts doubt on conclusions that had been reached under outmoded standards.

Common sense dictates that a person convicted through faulty evidence should have the right to a review by the courts. The proper mechanism is less clear, but it needs to be worked out. At the time of Willingham’s execution in 2004, should there have been a professional review of the forensic standards used to convict him?

Delving into an investigator’s “duty to correct” is beyond the bounds of the commission’s mandate, contends Chairman John Bradley, Williamson County district attorney.

It’s encouraging that the scientists on the nine-member commission disagree. Meeting in Dallas last week, Bradley also failed to hurry them along to a final draft in the Willingham case with a finding of no negligence.

The pushback exasperated Bradley, who complained the commission would just “waste another meeting.” The public should be exasperated with Bradley.

The commission was created in 2005 to review charges of professional negligence, and, where appropriate, prescribe “corrective action” for the agency in question. Defining a forensic professional’s “duty to correct” appears central to the spirit of the law.

The Willingham report will be the commission’s first. The tone should reflect the high stakes involved in the nation’s leading death penalty state.

Re-examining the evidence in Willingham case | Editorial | Fort Worth Star-Telegram

By , August 4, 2010

Fort Worth Star-Telegram Editorial

August 3, 2010

If an automaker discovers that a faulty design is making some of its cars accelerate without warning, the company doesn’t just make fixes going forward, it inspects older models to repair the defect.

If a material used in manufacturing, such as lead paint, is a health hazard, the government doesn’t just block its sale but requires the product’s removal to prevent harm.

If Texas used flawed science to convict criminal defendants of arson, why wouldn’t it be imperative to re-examine the evidence to make sure that previous findings are accurate and to avoid recurrences?

That’s the big-picture question looming over the Texas Forensic Science Commission’s investigation into the case of Cameron Todd Willingham.

Texas executed Willingham in 2004. The Corsicana man had been convicted 12 years earlier of setting a fire that killed his three daughters shortly before Christmas 1991.

Because of a complaint about the techniques used for that arson finding, the commission hired a Baltimore fire expert to review the case. He concluded that the original investigation used outdated forensic methods and that the fire might not have been deliberate. Now, the commission must decide if officials engaged in negligence or professional misconduct.

After lengthy discussion at a July 23 meeting, commission members agreed to gather more information and accept public comments, then meet in mid-September to hash out a report on the case.

All four members of a panel that looked at the Willingham case seemed to agree that the Corsicana Fire Department and Texas Fire Marshal’s office relied on flawed science to determine that arson occurred. But members didn’t agree on where that leads.

More modern forensic methods were published in 1992, the same month Willingham was charged. It took a few years for them to get widely accepted.

Commission Chairman John Bradley said there wasn’t enough evidence to say investigators were negligent. But other members weren’t ready to draw definitive conclusions.

Sarah Kerrigan, a Sam Houston State University forensic science professor, said it is a stretch to expect field investigators to be familiar with all the details in scientific literature.

“Professional ignorance is not professional negligence or misconduct,” she said. But she supported collecting more input on how widely the updated methods were being used in the early 1990s.

Criminal defense attorney Lance Evans of Fort Worth said he wants to learn what kind of training the investigators received and whether they met whatever standards they had been trained to follow.

Kerrigan said, “There’s no question that the science was flawed, and this has far-reaching consequences for this particular discipline well beyond this case.”

Commission findings could affect scores of inmates convicted of arson.

But the political pressure and national attention surrounding the inquiry shouldn’t drive the report that the commission is expected to vote on in October.

The commission can’t issue a judgment on Willingham’s guilt or innocence. Its mission is to determine the credibility of forensic procedures used in pursuing criminal convictions. Faulty procedures must be corrected.

If official negligence or misconduct took place, the state must answer for that. But even if the evidence doesn’t clearly show wrongdoing, a conviction based on bad science might still mean a wrongful execution. If so, there must be mechanisms in the legal system to make amends and avoid such an unacceptable mistake.

All Texans, including those who support the death penalty, should want to know the truth — and to make certain that no one’s life is taken erroneously in our name.

Read more: http://www.star-telegram.com/2010/08/03/2381751/re-examining-the-evidence-in-willingham.html#ixzz0vcOe4sXS

via Re-examining the evidence in Willingham case | Editorials | Fort Worth, Arlington, Northeast ….

San Antonio Paper Says John Bradley Unfit to Serve As Chair of Forensic Science Commission

By , February 11, 2010

Perrys brazen abuse of power

Feb. 7, 2010

San Antonio Express-News Editorial Board

When the going was about to get tough for Gov. Rick Perry at the Texas Forensic Science Commission last fall, Perry sacked three commission members, including its chairman. The commission — created by the Legislature in 2005 to set standards for forensic analysis and investigate allegations of negligence or misconduct — was at long last about to consider the case of Todd Willingham.

Willingham was put to death in 2004 after being convicted of murdering his three daughters by arson. Substantial doubt exists about the forensic evidence used to obtain that conviction. Perry denied Willingham’s reprieve request and insists the state properly executed “a monster.”

Just as the commission was set to hear expert testimony about the Willingham case, Perry’s new appointee — Williamson County District Attorney John Bradley — abruptly canceled the hearing. The move benefited Perry politically by delaying an official examination that could prove to be detrimental to his re-election effort.

The Forensic Science Commission met again last month. But the Willingham case wasn’t on the agenda. Instead, Bradley mired the commission in procedural issues and tried to establish policies that give him extraordinary powers not defined by the Legislature, including the power to appoint the members and chairman of a committee to screen complaints the commission receives.

Bradley also confirmed critics’ worst expectations about his commitment to transparency. The Dallas Morning News reported he prevented a film crew that is producing a documentary about the death penalty in Texas to cover the meeting, a violation of the Texas Open Meetings Act. Hours later, after the intervention of Attorney General Greg Abbott, Bradley allowed the film crew to enter.

The commission is supposed to return to case reviews — including, presumably, the Willingham case — at its meeting on April 23. Conveniently for Perry, that’s after the March 2 primary.

The commission needs to discharge its duties and determine if faulty science led to the execution of an innocent man. Perry’s brazen manipulation of the commission represents an abuse of the gubernatorial power of appointment. Bradley’s political hatchet work on the governor’s behalf and lack of respect for open government render him unfit to serve as its chairman.

Chairman of Texas forensic science panel oversteps his authority | Editorials & Opinions | Star…

By , November 26, 2009

Chairman of Texas forensic science panel oversteps his authority | Editorials & Opinions

Fort Worth Star-Telegram

November 26, 2009

What is it John Bradley doesn’t want the public to know about the work of the Texas Forensic Science Commission?

Gov. Rick Perry appointed Bradley, the Williamson County district attorney, to head the commission in September in a hasty shake-up of the panel’s membership that left lingering suspicions about the governor’s motives.

Bradley then proceeded to suggest in a public hearing that the commission might need to operate in secret on occasion. This Editorial Board cautioned against that idea on Nov. 14.

Now it sounds as though Bradley could be subtly trying to muzzle other panel members.

What he — and the governor — should realize is that this agency isn’t going to revert to obscurity, and trying to exercise dictatorial control over information is only going to draw negative attention and undermine public confidence.

The Legislature created the commission in 2005 to investigate complaints that state agencies were negligent or committed misconduct in handling forensic evidence, such as DNA analysis or toxicology, in criminal cases.

The nine-member panel gained notice when it hired a Baltimore fire expert who wrote a report questioning the arson determination that led to the capital conviction and 2004 execution of Cameron Todd Willingham.

Perry caused a stir by installing Bradley and two other new members shortly before a planned hearing on that report.

Star-Telegram reporter Dave Montgomery wrote Saturday that commission staff coordinator Leigh Tomlin had asked members for all correspondence about the Willingham case in order to comply with an open records request.

But her Oct. 30 message went further, instructing that commission policy is to “delete all commission correspondence” and saying “if you feel there is something that needs to be saved, forward it to my office.”

Bradley told Montgomery that the idea was to centralize data to make it easier to comply with media inquiries.

But any direction to delete public records — which e-mails by members of a public board are — looks problematic, whatever the purpose.

It would be easier to take Bradley at his word if members hadn’t received other e-mails telling them Bradley would handle all media inquiries and statements about the commission.

Providing consistent and accurate information is an admirable goal. But all nine members of the Texas Forensic Science Commission are appointed independently. They are not subordinate to the chairman, who is not given any specific powers in the law creating the commission.

As public officials, panel members should be free to talk to the media or public as they choose, as long as they don’t undercut the commission’s responsibilities.

Each member should be focused on conducting credible, independent investigations with as much transparency as possible.

No one should use the agency as a tool for aggregating power, steering outcomes, stifling dissent or shielding from public scrutiny the work done on behalf of Texans.

CSI: Texas: Governor shakes up commission, covers tracks

By , November 18, 2009

CSI: Texas: Governor shakes up commission, covers tracks | Editorial

Houston Chronicle

November 17, 2009

Try to imagine how the writers and actors of the three popular CSI: Crime Scene Investigation dramas on TV would handle this story line: After numerous wrongful convictions of innocent Texans using flawed evidence, particularly in cases processed at the Houston Police Crime Lab, in 2005 the state Legislature mandated the creation of the Texas Forensic Science Commission to examine the work of crime scene investigators and the quality of forensic science practiced here. One of the first cases tackled by the nine-member commission (including seven forensic specialists) was the arson conviction and subsequent execution in 2004 of a Corsicana man, Cameron Todd Willingham, for the deaths of his three daughters in a 1991 house fire. A final appeal before the execution to Texas Gov. Rick Perry challenging the validity of the arson evidence was denied.

The commission, composed of gubernatorial appointees, hired a nationally recognized arson expert, Craig Beyler, to evaluate the evidence. Without reaching a conclusion on Willingham’s guilt or innocence, his report harshly criticized the scientific conclusions of law enforcement investigators that Willingham deliberately started the fire.

Shortly before the commission was to hear from Beyler, Perry replaced four commission members, including the chairman, Austin attorney Sam Bassett. His choice for the new chairman was former Harris County prosecutor and Williamson County District Attorney John Bradley, who canceled the meeting and raised a number of issues about the commission’s lack of rules and procedures. While he pledged to continue the probe of the Willingham case, it’s clear his timetable would push it beyond Governor Perry’s March primary date with Texas Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison. Thus the governor would avoid a potentially embarrassing campaign issue — greenlighting the execution of an innocent man.

At a hearing of the state Senate Criminal Justice Committee last week, Bradley suggested putting the commission’s work on cases behind closed doors. He also challenged Houston state Sen. Rodney Ellis’ participation, citing Ellis’ chairmanship of the board of the Innocence Project, one of the key agents in uncovering the Houston Police Crime Lab scandal and an architect of the eventual plan to reform it. The Innocence Project also filed the complaint with the commission on the Willingham case and played a role in the exoneration of another man convicted in a similar arson case.

Ellis responded that in his testimony the chairman seemed bent on stalling the Willingham probe and that “he seemed unaware or unconcerned about the political implication surrounding his appointment by the governor. Texans lack confidence in the forensic science used in Texas cases, and Bradley’s testimony did little to restore that confidence.” Ellis said his involvement in the Innocence Project is simply to make sure innocent people are not convicted and sent to prison.

Bradley’s comments also initiated a retort from former Chairman Bassett, who pointed out that the law creating the commission called for timely investigations, and two of the three cases it is looking at date from complaints filed in 2006 that now may not be concluded until 2011 or later.

Innocence Project co-director and attorney Barry Scheck says Bradley’s dismissive comments about the Innocence Project showed either ignorance or insensitivity to his group’s role in exposing injustices in the Texas criminal justice system. “He obviously hasn’t been following the exonerations,” said Scheck, “the forensic issues raised in Houston and how the forensic commission came into being.”

As committee chair Sen. John Whitmire, D-Houston, observed, without the Innocence Project’s campaign there likely wouldn’t have been a law passed creating the commission in the first place. He expressed hope that the current controversy will raise the forensic commission’s profile and influence down the road.

It doesn’t take a crack CSI sleuth like the characters played by Laurence Fishburne and Marg Helgenberger to smell some foul politics emanating from the governor’s office and the new leadership at the Texas Forensic Science Commission. By attacking the very people and groups that have devoted their efforts to spotlighting wrongful convictions and freeing the innocent, Chairman Bradley has certainly not allayed suspicions that his first priority in his new post is protecting the man who appointed him rather than those unjustly convicted of crimes.

EDITOR’S NOTE: This editorial also appeared in the early edition of Sunday’s paper.

Los Angeles Times Editorial: likelihood remains that the real victim was Willingham

By , October 22, 2009

October 23, 2009

The execution of Cameron Todd Willingham

He died in Texas’ death chamber in 2001, even though the governor was aware of exculpatory evidence and is now apparently working to keep the truth from coming out.

Even in Texas, where the death penalty is embraced with fervor, the revelation that the governor permitted an execution to proceed in 2001 despite abundant evidence that the prosecution was based on seriously flawed scientific methods — well, that might not be helpful to his reelection chances. Not during a tough campaign.

So Gov. Rick Perry’s sudden decision to reconfigure the Texas Forensic Science Commission looks highly suspicious. Two days before the commission was scheduled to hear testimony from an arson expert whose scathing report gave every reason to believe Texas had wrongly convicted Cameron Todd Willingham of setting the fire that killed his three children, Perry replaced the chairman and two other members. Apparently he remembered that their terms had expired in August. The pesky hearing was canceled. It has not been rescheduled.

The report by arson expert Craig Beyler — whose findings corroborated those of at least one other expert — is damning. Beyler concluded that the arson investigators in the Willingham case proceeded on mistaken assumptions, employed outdated methods and mixed courtroom testimony with mystical balderdash. No one should be executed because an investigator tells a jury that “the fire tells the story; I am just the interpreter.”

If Perry didn’t know about the problems with the prosecution, he should have. A report challenging the arson investigators’ methodology landed on his desk before Willingham’s execution. Now it’s unclear how the commission will proceed. Its course, however, was set by the Texas Legislature, which established the board to “investigate any allegation of professional negligence or misconduct that affects the integrity of results and make all completed investigation reports, and subsequent civil or criminal proceedings, available to the public.” We’ll be waiting for a completed investigation and a public report.

Perry, who in recent days has called Willingham a “monster” who deserved to die and Beyler’s report “propaganda,” has had the nerve to paint himself as the victim of a politically motivated attempt to derail his reelection campaign. But he’s wrong. His motives are being challenged because an innocent man may have been executed. Until Perry supports the commission’s efforts and allows science to determine the truth, the likelihood remains that the real victim was Willingham.

Dallas Morning News Editorial: Rick Perry’s actions increasingly suspect in Todd Willingham case

By , October 12, 2009

Editorial: Perry’s actions increasingly suspect in Willingham case | News for Dallas, Texas | Dallas Morning News | Opinion: Editorials

Gov. Rick Perry’s Saturday night massacre of the Texas Forensic Science Commission has extended into Sunday and beyond.

When the governor abruptly unseated three commission members, including the chairman, he derailed a hearing about a flawed arson investigation that led to an execution. Little more than a week later, the governor has replaced a fourth member of the forensic science panel.

The commission is examining the arson-murder case of Cameron Todd Willingham, who was sent to his death in 2004. Fire science experts have emphatically rebuked the arson investigation, but the governor has attempted to plug his ears and push aside accumulating evidence that Texas might have executed an innocent man on his watch.Perry has insisted that this was standard operating procedure, all part of the regular cycle of appointments. But troubling comments from the deposed chairman suggest that the governor’s efforts to change the course of this inquiry began months ago.

Samuel Bassett, who was replaced as chairman two weeks ago, said the governor’s aides pressured him as they expressed displeasure with the investigation, questioned the cost of the inquiry and even hinted that the commission’s funding could be in jeopardy.

Although Perry has dismissed suggestions that he’s meddling, the governor’s fingerprints are all over the forensic science panel’s inquiry.

Fortunately, he might not have any more dirty tricks up his sleeve. The governor appoints only four of the commission’s nine members, so Perry has run out of people to replace.

The question now is whether he will allow the commission to proceed with its work on the Willingham case. If the commission – and Perry – are to have credibility on this issue, the governor must send the clear message that the inquiry should move forward apace.

Then the governor must back off.

No more closed-door meetings with Perry aides and commission members. No more not-so-subtle suggestions about the direction of the investigation. No more sarcastic remarks from Perry about “supposed experts.”

Perry has overstepped in his attempts to delay or quash this important inquiry. Unless he adopts a hands-off approach, his motives and the commission’s work will be suspect.

Longview News-Journal Editorial: Justice Delayed? Perry’s last-minute board switch is questionable

By , October 6, 2009

Justice Delayed? Perry’s last-minute board switch is questionable

Longview News-Journal Editorial Board

October 6, 2009

Gov. Rick Perry’s decision to remove three members of the Texas Forensic Science Commission just before a meeting on whether the state executed an innocent man convicted of the arson-related deaths of his three daughters simply doesn’t pass the smell test. Once again, it appears the governor has put his political interests ahead of what’s best for the state.

The commission was forced to postpone the meeting, in which it would have heard a report from an arson expert hired by the commission to look into the 1991 fire in Corsicana. Todd Willingham was convicted of murder and executed in 2004. He went to his death claiming his innocence, having previously rejected a plea bargain that would have spared him from the needle.

That, of course, on the face of it doesn’t prove anything. The state has executed many people who died claiming they were innocent and almost certainly weren’t, but in Willingham’s case, there is a real possibility that the state indeed executed an innocent man.

The original arson investigator and a now-dead state fire marshal ruled the fire was arson, ignited by a liquid accelerant. Willingham repeatedly tried to go back inside to get his children, according to eyewitnesses. There was no financial motive, since the modest insurance policy on the children named their grandfather as beneficiary.

The arson investigator hired by the commission, Craig Beyler of Baltimore, claims the original finding of arson is not supported by the scientific evidence, a conclusion also reached by an Austin-based investigator. Gov. Perry was in office when Willingham was executed and refused to grant a stay.

The commission certainly has a moral obligation to reopen the evidence and weigh whether the state indeed made a horrible mistake. The governor, by replacing three members of the commission just 48 hours before that hearing, has forced it to be delayed — perhaps past next March’s Republican primary, in which he faces his toughest challenge to date from U.S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison. Perry claims the members’ terms had expired and this was “business as usual.” Several of these members have served more than one term.

We do think it is business as usual for the governor. That is why it doesn’t pass the smell test.

San Antonio Express News Editorial: Perry errs with panel shake-up

By , October 6, 2009

Perry errs with panel shake-up

San Antonio Express News Editorial Board

October 7, 2009

There’s good reason to believe the state of Texas put Todd Willingham to death in 2004 for a crime he didn’t commit. Law enforcement and prosecutors in Corsicana determined Willingham started the 1991 fire that consumed his home and killed his three daughters. A review of the evidence, however, shows that determination was deeply flawed.

The Willingham case was one of the first taken up by the Texas Forensic Science Commission. Created by the Legislature in 2005, the commission sets standards for forensic analysis and investigates allegations of negligence or misconduct that could affect the integrity of such analysis.

The commission hired a nationally renowned fire expert to review the forensic evidence in the Willingham case. His report was a scathing indictment of junk science that pinned a prosecution on Willingham while rejecting obvious alternative explanations for how the fire started.

Two days before the commission was to hold a public hearing on the case and hear testimony from fire expert Craig Beyler, Gov. Rick Perry replaced three members of the panel, including its chairman. Perry’s pick to head the commission, Williamson County District Attorney John Bradley, abruptly canceled the hearing, saying he needed more time to become familiar with the case.

The explanation from the governor’s office that the commissioners’ terms expired on Sept. 1 doesn’t hold water. Among the thousands of gubernatorial appointments to boards and commissions, holdovers are common for months or even years. No reasonable explanation exists for Perry to sack the forensic science commission’s leadership at this crucial stage and impede its progress in the Willingham review.

That review is not a proxy for the death penalty debate. It is about how bad science can empower an overzealous prosecution.

The review also isn’t about politics — at least it shouldn’t be. It’s about improving the system of justice in Texas by determining how a highly questionable case made it past jury members, a judge, more appellate judges, the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles and, ultimately, the governor.

Perry’s shake up of the commission has, unfortunately, injected politics into the matter. Perry, who declined to commute Willingham’s sentence to life in prison, faces a strong primary challenge from Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison.

The evidence that Perry is trying to delay or even quash a commission finding that could prove to be detrimental to his re-election effort is at least as sound as the evidence that sent Todd Willingham to the death chamber in Huntsville.

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