The following opinion by Barry Scheck and Patricia Willingham Cox was published in the Houston Chronicle on July 20, 2010.
This Friday, the Texas Forensic Science Commission (TFSC) is meeting in Houston to discuss, among other things, the status of its inquiry into whether arson investigations across the state have been based for many years on outdated and discredited scientific analysis and that the Texas criminal justice system has failed to recognize this fact. The inquiry arose from two cases — those of Cameron Todd Willingham and Ernest Willis — in which arson had been found and both men were sentenced to death.
In Willis’ case, the system identified its error when Ori White, the prosecutor responsible for retrial after appeal, relying on the expertise of Dr. Gerald Hurst, realized how wrong the original arson analysis was. He promptly moved to dismiss the case, and Willis was ultimately pardoned on the grounds of actual innocence.
Cameron Todd Willingham was not so lucky. Despite asserting his innocence, he was executed in 2004 based on the same arson evidence that prosecutor White — and the arson community nationwide — had realized was scientifically baseless. Before Willingham was executed, Gov. Rick Perry ignored a plea from Hurst, the expert Ori White relied upon, that arson analysis in Willingham’s case was plainly unreliable.
Our interest in these issues is not abstract. One of us, Patricia Cox, is a cousin of Cameron Todd Willingham. The other, Barry Scheck, is co-founder of the Innocence Project, which exonerates the wrongfully convicted through DNA evidence.
In May 2006, we asked the TFSC to undertake this inquiry about arson evidence. We submitted a 48-page report from an independent panel of the nation’s leading arson investigators, which concluded that the scientific analysis used to convict Willingham was not valid. The commissioners then engaged their own national expert to review the matter, who agreed that the forensic analysis used to convict Willingham was wrong — and further, that experts who testified at Willingham’s trial should have known it was wrong at the time. Days before that expert was to present his findings, Perry removed three commissioners, including the chair, Sam Bassett, and appointed Williamson County District Attorney John Bradley as the new chair. Bradley immediately shut down the Willingham hearing.
In an op-ed on these pages last November, Bradley denied charges that his actions were politically motivated and decried those “[who] have made exaggerated claims and drawn premature conclusions about the case.” He then assured Texans that the commission’s investigation “will be completed” using a “disciplined, scientific approach.” Instead, what we have seen so far is not a review of scientific issues but a bureaucratic effort to undermine, if not end, the Willingham inquiry by rewriting the commission’s rules and its jurisdiction.
Last week, after closed meetings that may violate the Texas Open Meetings Act, Bradley sent out an unsigned legal memo instructing commissioners that they have a “relatively narrow investigative jurisdiction.”
Employing “Catch-22” logic, he claimed that commissioners lack the “discretion or power” to investigate evidence that was not from a laboratory accredited by the Department of Public Safety (DPS) — which, as it happens, did not accredit labs before 2003, years after the Willingham fire. By this reasoning, the TFSC cannot review any pre-2003 matter, such as the Houston Police Department crime lab evidence, the scandal that gave rise to its formation.
In 2008, the TFSC carefully considered the jurisdiction question, and, with assent from the Attorney General’s office, determined that the Willingham and other old cases like it are well within its authority.
And rightly so: The Willingham inquiry into the use of unreliable arson analysis is an urgent matter for more than 600 people incarcerated in Texas whose arson convictions may have been based on invalid science. If its investigation is derailed, the commissioners would be turning their backs on these potentially innocent Texans.
Rather than becoming mired in bureaucratic shell games, the commissioners should take their cue from the FBI, which, after learning that a scientific test it used for three decades to do composite bullet lead analysis was unreliable, not only stopped using this flawed science but systematically reviewed its old cases and notified prosecutors across the country when it could no longer stand behind the testimony of its own agent examiners. The same should be done in this instance.
The people of Texas deserve a justice system they can believe in. But if commissioners keep allowing Bradley to rewrite the rules and sabotage the commission’s mission, their ability to redress the forensic problems that have plagued the criminal justice system in Texas will never materialize.
Scheck is co-founder of the Innocence Project; Cox is a cousin of Cameron Todd Willingham.