For more than a year, the Texas Forensic Science Commission has been investigating whether professional negligence or misconduct played a role in the forensic evidence that led to Cameron Todd Willingham’s conviction. He was executed in Texas in 2004 for allegedly setting a fire that killed his three young daughters 13 years earlier. Since 2004, further evidence in the case has led multiple prominent arson experts to conclude that there was no evidence to prove that Willingham set the fire for which he was executed.
Last Friday commissioners were poised to reveal their opinions after hearing testimony from two of these experts who pointed out the flaws in the testimony given by original arson investigators from Corsicana and the State Fire Marshal’s Office at Willingham’s trial.
Instead, they were halted by a self-imposed roadblock when they voted unanimously to seek an attorney general’s decision on whether they even had jurisdiction in the case.
In the Houston Chronicle,
Rick Casey questions
what happened behind closed doors at the TFSC’s meeting last week and wonders if the commissioners think arson probes are a ‘lesser science.’
What made the decision extraordinary is that the commission from the beginning has been guided by Barbara Dean, a senior member of the attorney general’s staff who faithfully attended commission meetings and regularly offered legal opinions.
Up to this point, most delays in the commission’s investigation have come from Chairman John Bradley’s opposition to hearing expert testimony. If the question of jurisdiction is a real concern, Dean should have addressed that several meetings ago rather than impede the commission’s work yet again.
But the seven scientists on the nine-member body have repeatedly and overwhelmingly rejected Bradley’s strictures. The unanimity of the vote suggests that a serious legal issue was raised in the secret session.
My guess is that the issue was brought by either the city of Corsicana or the fire marshal’s office, or both.
If I’m right, we are watching an ugly spectacle of two law enforcement agencies, unable to marshal science on their side, aggressively fighting against science with lawyers.
The main reason the TFSC was formed in the first place was to strengthen the use of forensic science in criminal investigations.
There is no reason to exclude arson from the scope of the commission, since scores of people sit in our prisons based on arson investigators’ testimony.
It is frightening that even though they can’t produce a scientist who doesn’t believe the Willingham arson investigation was botched, both the Corsicana Police Department and the State Fire Marshal’s Office maintain that it was a good investigation.