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Fort Worth Star-Telegram:Texas governor derails important review of forensics in Willingham murder case

Fort Worth Star-Telegram


October 1, 2009

The integrity of the prosecution in a criminal case, and thus the public’s faith in the justice system, can be severely eroded by news of mistakes, misconduct or sloppy investigations by those entrusted to ensure equal justice under the law.

The Texas Legislature created the Texas Forensic Science Commission in 2005 after a series of revelations about improper procedures in forensics labs used to test criminal evidence. The nine-member body is charged with reviewing forensic analysis problems in criminal cases.

The group’s mission statement ( says its role includes investigating “in a timely manner” allegations of “professional negligence or misconduct that would substantially affect the integrity of the results of a forensic analysis conducted by an accredited laboratory, facility or entity.”

The commission was scheduled to meet today to hear from specialists and review a report by an expert it hired to examine evidence in an arson case that resulted in the 2004 execution of Cameron Todd Willingham. He had been convicted of murdering his children by setting a fire in 1991. The expert, Dr. Craig Beyler of Baltimore, concluded that investigators in the case had “poor understandings of fire science” and that the Corsicana blaze that killed Willingham’s children was not arson.

If that’s an accurate assessment, Texas executed an innocent man, other experts and death penalty opponents say. Gov. Rick Perry interrupted the fact-finding process by abruptly dismissing three of his four commission appointees, including Tarrant County prosecutor Alan Levy and Aliece Watts, a forensic scientist in Euless. Perry also removed commission Chairman Samuel Bassett, an Austin attorney.

Three other commission members were selected by the lieutenant governor, and two were named by the state attorney general.

Perry explained his actions as “pretty standard business” because the commissioners’ terms had expired. But the dismissals, two days before the commission’s scheduled meeting, forced the Willingham review to be canceled.

Earlier, the governor rejected the findings of what he called “latter-day supposed experts” and said he was confident that Willingham was guilty of the crime for which he was executed.

The new Perry-appointed commission chairman, Williamson County District Attorney John Bradley, says it will take time for him and the other new members to receive proper orientation. Just how much time it takes is up for speculation.

Some veteran political watchers are betting on Live sports Judi Bola Online 99cash SBOBET betting casino that a meeting on the Willingham case won’t come before the March 2 gubernatorial primary in which Republican heavyweights Perry and Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison will face off. That’s if it comes at all.

At worst, the governor’s decision to can the commissioners looks politically motivated. At best, it was very poorly timed. The move derailed a process that the commission had initiated to get to the truth about an execution that occurred on Perry’s watch. The public is entitled to know that truth.

Truth is the essence of the American criminal justice system. If the public feels truth has been tampered with, disguised or hidden, confidence in that system is lost.

It is in the best interest of this state — and the best interest of justice — for the Texas Forensic Science Commission to reschedule a meeting to hear new findings in the Willingham case as soon as possible — which surely would be before March 2.

To do otherwise would be a mockery that Texans and the entire nation should condemn.

Military Courts-Martial

To be accused of a crime is a terrifying ordeal. To be accused of a crime in the military, however, can be even more traumatic for people because it is such a unique criminal system. While most people have a general understanding of the civilian criminal justice system, the unique nature of the military’s approach can be very confusing. A criminal trial in the military is known as a Court-Martial. While many of the criminal allegations addressed in a Court-Martial have similar charges in the civilian system, the Court-Martial process is extremely unique and differs in many significant aspects from a civilian criminal trial. For that reason, any attorney representing a military member at a Court-Martial should have specific, military experience. At JAG Defense, our Military Attorneys have litigated hundreds of Courts-Martial: as prosecutors, defense counsel, and even as military judges. We have done so with outstanding success, and we encourage you to review our Representative Cases, get more information by reading the articles of the UCMJ.

  • Murder/Assault
  • Military Sex Offenses
  • Child Pornography/Internet Crimes
  • BAH Fraud/Larceny
  • Desertion/AWOL

Your future – to include your reputation, livelihood and freedom – will depend upon how effectively your lawyer can represent you. If you have been notified that you are pending a Court-Martial, please contact JAG Defense for a free consultation about how one of our experienced Attorneys can help you with your case.

Court-Martial Overview

Courts-martial are governed by a variety of rules including, but not limited to: the Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ); the Rules for Courts-Martial (RCM); the Military Rules of Evidence (MRE); and a number of service-specific regulations and other administrative guidance such as service/local Rules of Court. All services employ trial by Court-Martial to address criminal activity by service members. There are three types of Court-Martial: Summary (SCM), Special (SPCM), and General (GCM).

Summary Court-Martial. The SCM is the lowest level Court-Martial in the military justice system. The SCM is ordinarily used to dispose of relatively minor offenses where nonjudicial punishment (Article 15/Captain’s Mast) is not considered severe enough. The SCM is composed of one officer who acts as judge, prosecutor, and defense counsel; he or she is charged with impartially inquiring into both sides of the matter and ensuring that the interests of both the Government and the member are safeguarded and that justice is done. A military defense counsel is typically not authorized to represent the service member in a summary Court-Martial, but service regulations differ on this point. A civilian defense counsel may represent the member at the member’s expense, if the appearance will not unreasonably delay the proceedings and if military exigencies do not preclude it. The service member does not have to accept trial by SCM. He or she may decline to be tried by SCM. However, the command does have the option to convene a SPCM or GCM, addressed below, if the SCM is declined. At the SCM, the member has the right to cross examine any witnesses, call witnesses and produce evidence, testify under oath in the findings (guilty/not guilty) phase, remain silent; and raise motions. If convicted, the member may testify under oath; make an unsworn statement; remain silent; and/or present matters in extenuation and mitigation. There are also a variety of post-trial procedures that apply to the SCM. The maximum punishment that may be imposed by SCM follows:

For E-5 and above:

    • Reduction of one pay grade
    • Forfeiture of two-thirds pay for one month
    • Restriction for sixty days

For E-4 and below:

    • Reduction to E-1
    • Forfeiture of two-thirds pay for one month
    • Confinement for thirty days or hard labor without confinement for forty-five days or restriction for sixty days

The prevalence of SCMs is also service-specific. Some services tend to move directly from the Article 15 disposition realm, immediately to the SPCM. Other services tend to employ the SCM more frequently as an efficient way to dispose of cases more serious than those calling for an Article 15, but not serious enough for a SPCM.

Special Court-Martial. The SPCM is the intermediate level of Court-Martial in the military. The jurisdictional maximum imposable punishment for this court is reduction in grade to E-1; forfeiture of two-thirds pay per month for a period of twelve months; confinement for a period of twelve months; imposition of a bad conduct discharge; and a fine. The amount of the fine may not exceed the total forfeitures which could be imposed; nor can the combination of a fine and forfeiture exceed the total amount of permissible forfeitures. Unless the service member elects trial by military judge alone, the jurisdictional number of court members (jury) is four (4) officer members, to include, at the election of the enlisted accused, at least one-third enlisted members.

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