Our newspaper has a Sunday feature in the Points section called Point Person. It’s a question-and-answer session with a person in the news or a person with an interesting perspective on life or current events.
This week my bosses asked me if I’d see about doing the Q&A with Williamson County District Attorney John Bradley, who chairs the Texas Forensic Science Commission. The subject would bethe commission’s handling of the Cameron Todd Willingham case.
Bottom line: no dice.
I’m appending below 1) the questions I sent along, 2) Mr. Bradley’s response, 3) my response to his response.
1. Your handling of the Cameron Todd Willingham case has been faulted as heavy-handed and politically motivated. What do you say to your critics?
2. Draft recommendations to the Texas Forensic Science Commission appear to have reached a foregone conclusion of no negligence by arson investigators in the Willingham case. Will the final report go beyond this finding?
3. The law says the commission’s final report on a negligence case must address “corrective action required by the laboratory, facility or entity” involved. Is the commission obligated to assess whether the State Fire Marshal’s Office has upgraded standards?
4. The recommendations clear Willingham investigators of negligence because they used forensic techniques accepted at the time. Yet the commission’s paid expert said investigators didn’t meet even that standard. How do you square the two?
5. Experts say hundreds of arson defendants have been convicted based on similarly outmoded standards. How should the commission or state fire marshal address that claim?
6. Why did the committee of four commissioners working on the Willingham case meet in private? Shouldn’t the public be aware of factors that members weighed in recommending no negligence?
7. Will the committee draft the final report in public?
8. What is your opinion of the role of Barry Scheck and the Innocence Project of New York in the Willingham case?
Bradley’s reponse, via email, to the questions and interview request:
The questions have the distinctive vocabulary of a New York lawyer, filled with the sort of leading statements that would cause any Texas judge to sustain an objection on the grounds of “leading” and “propaganda”. Regardless, the Forensic Science Commission has unanimously adopted policies and procedures that state, “FSC members and employees shall avoid discussing the details of pending matters with the media, except upon final disposition of those matters.”
My response to Mr. Bradley, though his commission office:
Please let him know that I am neither a lawyer nor from New York. I neither sought nor got help from Barry Scheck’s group in formulating my questions. I asked a question specifically about Scheck because my boss wanted me to.
My interest in bill language is not confined to criminal justice issues. I try to read the fine print so I can minimize the number of really dumb or naive questions I ask.
I realize the commission intends to confine its attention to “accredited,” DPS-recognized facilities and entities that do forensic work. I read the memo. My questions about a more expansive role stem from 1) statements from lawmakers who support a more expansive interpretation, and 2) the fact that the commission undertook the Willingham case, which involves no DPS-accredited lab.
Again, thank you for your time.
Still, the commission’s own draft recommendations last week conceded that they are in new territory in the Willingham case and should carry forth and finish the job, as it were:
While the panel recognizes that jurisdictional problems remain to be resolved, they also recognize that the FSC has previously voted to accept the complaint and conducted an investigation through a paid consultant. In addition, the panel recognizes there is great public interest in the case. So, while the jurisdictional issues (See 7.12.2010 Memorandum on the Jurisdiction of the FSC) need to be addressed and applied more clearly in future cases, the panel nonetheless makes the following recommendations for disposition of the complaint:
Relying upon the consultant’s report as to the standard of practice in existence at the time of the arson investigation and trial, the panel unanimously believes that the arson experts did not commit professional negligence or misconduct. The expert simply applied the standard of practice as it existed at the time of the investigation and trial (See Beyler Report Pg. 1). We do recognize that a new standard of practice has since evolved and been adopted for application in Texas. However, that standard was not yet adopted for practice at the time of the arson investigation and trial.
So my questions remain, I think, pertinent ones. If the commission has undertaken the Willingham case, should it not finish the job in as complete and comprehensive a manner as possible?
If my questions were dumb despite my best efforts, I’d love to know.
Finally, I should plead guilty to Mr. Bradley’s complaint about my questions. They weren’t meant to be nice. Accusatory, yes. But that’s my role, and this Willingham business isn’t about niceties.