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Texas Forensic Science Commission members shine light into some dark places

From the Fort Worth Star-Telegram

The ghost of Cameron Todd Willingham is still haunting us, as well it should.

Despite the actions of state investigators who used bad science in a capital murder case, blatant political maneuvering last year by the governor in replacing members on a state commission and an attempt by an appointed chairman to close the book on the issue, the Willingham case will not go away.

Willingham is dead, executed by the state in 2004 for the deaths of his three small children who were killed in a 1991 Corsicana fire that prosecutors say Willingham intentionally set. Until the day he died, the convicted man maintained his innocence.

Some believe the state executed an innocent man.

I don’t know that we’ll ever be able to prove that, but we owe it to his family, to the people of this state and to justice itself to find out as much of the truth as can be discerned and whether it is possible (or probable) that we may have made a grave mistake.

Five years ago, because of problems in some crime labs across the state, the Texas Legislature created the Texas Forensic Science Commission to facilitate the reporting of, and the subsequent investigation into, professional negligence or misconduct. The idea was that such a commission would help “strengthen the use of forensic science in criminal investigations and courts.”

The Innocence Project, with a reputation for exonerating wrongly convicted people (more than 40 in Texas since 1994), brought the Willingham case to the commission, saying that fire inspectors, including the state fire marshal’s office, had used bad science in determining that the fire was caused by arson.

Arson investigation experts, one of whom was scheduled to present a report to the commission last year, said the evidence concluding arson that was presented at Willingham’s trial was based on flawed science.

Just two days before that expert could present his findings, Gov. Rick Perry replaced his appointees — the chair and three others — to the nine-member commission. He named Williamson County District Attorney John Bradley to lead the group, and the new chair wasted no time in postponing indefinitely any testimony from any outside experts.

This summer a panel of the commission produced a draft report that basically cleared case investigators of any misconduct or negligence, stating they had used the accepted standards of the day.

The governor has maintained that Willingham was guilty because a jury convicted him and several appeals courts upheld that decision. Of course, appeals courts also upheld the cases of men who have been exonerated recently after serving years in the penitentiary.

At last week’s commission meeting in Dallas, as Bradley attempted to have his draft report adopted and in effect close the Willingham case for good, a majority of the members pushed back.

Those members decided they wanted to know more about the science that was available at the time. They also voted to have officials from the fire marshal’s office and arson experts appear at the commission’s next meeting in November.

They were unwilling to simply sweep this under the rug, and they showed they were not about to be bullied by a chairman nor allow their appointed positions on the commission to be political pawns of the governor.

This was a bold move that gave hope to some of us that more light will be shed on this case — even if we may never know the full truth.

Most commissioners, including Tarrant County Medical Examiner Nizam Peerwani, say there should be a review of other arson cases in the state to see if bad science played a role in the charges and convictions.

Peerwani, in fact, said he already has decided to take a look at cases dating back 20 years in Tarrant County.

Maybe we’ve witnessed the dawning of a new day in this state, one in which the bright sunlight will shine on ugly flaws in our criminal justice system and reveal once-hidden truths.

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