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.