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There appears to be little or no dissent among members of the Texas Forensic Science Commission that soon-to-be outdated science was used to build an arson-murder case that led to Cameron Todd Willingham’s execution.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

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