Committee meetings of the Forensic Science Commission are being held in secret, including a committee evaluating the Todd Willingham arson investigation which met yesterday. Death penalty activist Scott Cobb (of Texas Moratorium Network) emailed FSC coordinator Leigh Tomlin to ask:
I heard your voice mail that the Complaint Screening Committee and the Investigative Committee on the Willingham/Willis Case held meetings yesterday in Dallas. When and where were they held? I didn’t see any meeting notice posted on the website. I only knew about it because I had read in the Houston Chronicle that it was going to be held next Thursday. Did the Commission provide a public notice before the meetings were held? How can the public be aware of when these meetings are going to be held in the future? Are there minutes available of the meetings yesterday?
Tomlin replied with a single sentence: “The meetings were not public meetings.”
They could be public, of course, at the discretion of the commission and the chair. But the new rules Chairman John Bradley rammed throughat the commission’s last meeting allow him to opt to have closed sessions.
The commission just posted its agenda for next week’s meeting, again drawn up by Bradley though this time honoring some suggestions from commissioners. The first item: approval of Bradley’s nominations for a number of committees, including an “investigative panel” for the Willingham case.For that three-member panel, Bradley called his own number. The other two are Dr. Nizam Peerwani of the Tarrant County medical examiner’s office and Sarah Kerrigan, the Scotland Yard-trained head of the forensic science graduate program at Sam Houston State University. Peerwani is one of Perry’s new appointees. Kerrigan has been critical of Bradley’s leadership.
Little progress expectedThe group’s first meeting is set for next Thursday, the day before the commission’s meeting. Since it is scheduled for just two hours and is not expected to hear from Beyler or any other witnesses, don’t look for it to advance the process much.Bradley said he had planned to have the commission question Beyler at the October meeting, hear from critics of his report at the February meeting and then produce a final commission report by the spring or summer.He said the nine members of the commission, a much smaller body than most congressional committees, were comfortable handling the matter as a whole.If Bradley wanted to press the matter, I suppose he could push the investigative panel to produce a report by the July meeting and take action then or at the October meeting.But to expect that, I suspect, would be doubly naive.
If one believes – as admittedly I do – that the Governor ousted his old appointees last fall and replaced them with Bradley and Co. for the purpose of scuttling the Willingham inquiry until after the election, then these new rules and committee assignments set them up admirably to accomplish the task. Particularly telling was the chairman’s brazen decision to assign himself to the committee assessing the Willingham case. From the Startlegram: “The notion that he would be on this particular committee in light of everything that has gone on in the last year is particularly inappropriate,” said Rep. Lon Burnam, D-Fort Worth. “A suspicious mind would be concerned about nefarious activities.”
Burnam’s right about Bradley and the appearance of neutrality. The Williamson County DA has already been sharply, publicly critical of the arson expert commissioned to investigate the lack of scientific rigor in the evidence presented at the Willingham trial. Bradley even tried to prevent the scientist from testifying before a legislative committee that requested his views on the role of expert testimony unrelated to the case.
What’s more, a second member of the three-person committee, Dr. Peerwani, was also appointed last fall after the Governor interceded tochange the direction of the commission. So two of the three committee members evaluating the Willingham case were people who, by all appearances, were appointed to the Commission primarily to impede the investigation, not get to the bottom of the matter. Given that, there’s a decent chance the thing never gets voted out of committee – that’s what I’d do if I just wanted to kill it.
That’s why, IMO someone on the commission should bone up on their parliamentary procedure and make a “motion to reconsider” at their next meeting later this month, because they were sold a pig in a poke. The Commission made the decision to create this new committee structure based on false pretenses, believing it wouldn’t apply to pending cases. I was liveblogging the hearing at the time, and here’s how I recorded the exchange on whether the Willingham case would go through the new committee process:
Dr. Kerrigan asked whether these rules apply to pending cases or new ones. Good question! Bradley said new or recent cases would be affected but not those already in the pipeline. A commissioner asked particularly whether cases where they’d already spent money on outside consultants would now have to go through the new process. Bradley said “no.”Later, though, just before the meeting ended:Bradley backtracked after the rules passed to say old cases like Todd Willingham’s in fact will go through his new committee process. That’s a complete 180-degree flip from what he told the commission members twenty minutes ago, back when Commissioner Kerrigan told the chair her vote depended on his answer.The next day, in a post reviewing the meeting, I accused Bradley of:
Dissembling: When a commissioner told the chairman her vote hinged on whether old cases already in the pipeline – including ones where the Commission had already paid outside consultants (there are only two) – would be subjected to the new committee process, Bradley said no, they would not. After the vote, when the meeting had nearly ended, Bradley insisted that Willingham’s case must go through “part of” the new committee process. If he’d been honest about that during the debate, IMO a majority of commissioners present wouldn’t have supported his rules.That’s sufficient reason to initiate a motion to reconsider, which is allowable under Robert’s Rules if the motion is made by anyone – say, Dr. Kerrigan or her allies on the board – who voted for the rules at the last meeting. I think the Commission should reconsider and clarify the rules to have pending, longstanding cases bypass this new committee, which is what they were told would happen before they voted to create it.