The following op-ed was published by the Houston Chronicle on October 2, 2010.
By JEFF BLACKBURN, GARY UDASHEN and CORY SESSION
The Cameron Todd Willingham case has raised serious questions about the Texas criminal justice system. To many, the issue is whether Texas executed an innocent man. To the Innocence Project of Texas, the questions raised by this case are much bigger. To us, the real issue raised by the Willingham case is the ongoing use of "junk science" to falsely convict the innocent.
What is junk science? There are few things more convincing to a jury than scientific evidence presented by expert witnesses called by the state in a criminal case. Sometimes, however, the so-called science used by prosecutors isn't science at all.
Many Texas defendants have been convicted when fraudulent or invented forensic techniques were presented as scientific truth at trial. Others have gone to prison as a result of genuine science being twisted into false accusations of guilt. From the Houston Crime Lab disaster to the discredited testimony of experts like Ralph Erdmann and Fred Zain, Texas leads the nation in scandal over this problem. The Cameron Todd Willingham case, in which discredited arson science was used to get a conviction, is only one of many examples of the use of this kind of evidence.
Just last year, the Innocence Project of Texas exposed the work of Keith Pikett, a Fort Bend County Sheriff's deputy who made use of "dog-scent lineups" to link suspects to evidence retrieved from crime scenes. The Innocence Project report, entitled Dog Scent Lineups: A Junk Science Injustice, called attention to the numerous wrongful accusations and convictions that resulted from this form of junk science. Even though the self-trained deputy did not have a scientific background, he was allowed time and time again to testify in criminal trials about the alleged science behind his lineup procedures. Pikett's expert testimony was all junk and no science — and it was used repeatedly by prosecutors. In an encouraging move, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals recently reversed a case based on Pikett's testimony. That move aside, prosecutors are still allowed to use charlatans like Pikett in Texas courtrooms.
The technique of using phony experts, unscientific evidence or just plain fraud dressed up as expert testimony is known as the use of junk science. It is being employed to get convictions in courtrooms all over the state to this day.
Fortunately, there are solutions to this problem. Innocent citizens who have been convicted in the past because of junk science need to have a fair day in court to prove that they were wrongfully convicted. Forensic labs need to be separated from law-enforcement agencies and made fully accountable to the scientific community. Trial procedures need to be improved so that innocent citizens will not be victimized by junk science in the future.
It will take a concerted effort by state agencies and lawmakers to make these changes in Texas. The Innocence Project of Texas calls on officials and lawmakers of Texas to step up to this challenge.
• We call on the governor, the attorney general and the Department of Public Safety to reopen and thoroughly investigate every Texas conviction based on junk science;
• We call on the Texas Forensic Sciences Commission to move forward and begin in-depth investigations of all junk science cases, not just cases involving arson;
• We call on the Texas Legislature to pass laws guaranteeing the innocent victims of this practice a day in court;
• We call on the Legislature and governor to make reforms that prohibit the use of junk science in Texas courtrooms.
The students, professors and practicing lawyers of the Innocence Project of Texas pledge their help in this effort. We are willing to help the government review and investigate every case of junk science that has ever made its way through the Texas court system.
In the meantime, we will continue to fight these cases in the courts of this state and before the Texas Forensic Sciences Commission. We have launched a full-scale campaign to do that.
As big as the Willingham case is, the junk science problem that turned it into a national controversy is much bigger. We can solve this problem, and we should do so without delay.
Blackburn is chief counsel, Udashen is president and Session is policy director of the Innocence Project of Texas.
Truth in Justice Editor's Note: It's time to ban junk science from all courtrooms, not just those in Texas.