Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott ruled today that the Texas Forensic Science Commission does not have the jurisdiction to review cases involving evidence that was introduced before September 1, 2005. This spring, the Commission issued a report finding serious flaws in the arson evidence used to convict Cameron Todd Willingham, who was executed in 2004 for allegedly setting a fire that killed his three daughters.
Willingham always claimed his innocence, and the arson investigation used to convict him was questioned by a leading expert before Willingham was executed. Since 2004, many other experts have reviewed the evidence and agreed that the original fire investigation was deeply flawed.
The Texas Forensic Science Commission recently asked the Attorney General’s office to clarify its scope to conduct investigations on evidence offered prior to the commissions creation in 2005. Abbott ruled today that there is no time limitation on the Commissions general authority to investigate allegations of professional negligence or misconduct, but that Commission is prohibited “from considering or evaluating specific items of evidence that were tested or offered into evidence” prior to September 1, 2005.
The following is a response from Innocence Project Co-Director Barry Scheck.
We are disappointed in the Attorney General’s ruling, which severely limits the authority of the Texas Forensic Science Commission to review cases prior to September 1, 2005. We believe the reasoning of the opinion is wrong and contrary to the clear intention of the legislature when it formed the Commission. We urge the legislature to correct this injustice and fully empower the Commission to investigate all matters that could help prevent wrongful convictions.
However, one of our main objectives in pushing the Cameron Todd Willingham investigation has been to ensure that other people are not sitting in prison because they were wrongly convicted based on the same flawed forensic science that was used to convict Willingham. This opinion should not interfere with the Commission’s ability to do that. The opinion clearly states that there is no time limitation on the Commission’s general authority to investigate allegations of professional negligence or misconduct. The state Fire Marshal’s Office has always been the central focus of our allegation, as it has failed to inform the Texas criminal justice system that the arson evidence long used to convict people has been conclusively proven to be scientifically invalid, and thus unreliable as evidence. As recently as this year, the state Fire Marshal’s office defended the use of deeply flawed and outdated forensic science in the Willingham fire investigation. The serious negligence reflected by this failure of the Fire Marshal is ongoing and could taint cases going back decades involving many potentially innocent people in prison. These facts should provide the Commission with ample justification for continuing with its investigation, demanding that the state take sufficient action to review all cases where someone may have been wrongly convicted of arson based on flawed arson forensics, and ensuring that the correct practices are in place so that all future investigations are based on the most up-to-date forensic science.