Sunday, January 20, 2013

Better Late Than Never

The following editorial was published by the Dallas News on January 9, 2013.

Breakthroughs take time in criminal justice reform, and they get messy, but they are no less impressive when they happen.

Just this week in Houston, the state fire marshal’s office sat down with outside experts to pore over a short list of old arson cases suspected of using junk science to put someone behind bars. One of those suspect cases, from the Central Texas town of Hewitt, is on a separate review track in McLennan County. The district attorney there has cited “serious and complex issues” involving arson forensics in the murder conviction of Ed Graf, who will get a hearing Friday on a writ to reopen his 26-year-old case.

All this traces back to the noisy early days of the Texas Forensic Science Commission and its first case, the arson-murder conviction of Cameron Todd Willingham, executed in 2004. Critics were prone to calling reformers out of bounds, grandstanders who were out to undermine Texans’ support of the death penalty.

Those critics need to take a look today. The fight was a righteous one and has yielded a kind of systematic re-examination of the science in arson convictions that is unprecedented in the nation.

As a fledgling agency, the Forensic Science Commission took heat for stretching its authority in 2008 and accepting the Willingham case for review. This newspaper is glad it did, even though the law creating the commission didn’t expressly list arson as a forensic science under its purview.

The commission’s final report — while not commenting on Willingham’s guilt or innocence — said prosecutors relied on arson investigators who had a poor understanding of fire science and learned their craft when there were no uniform standards.

Those very themes surfaced in the Graf case, in reports compiled by experts retained by the Innocence Project of Texas. Prosecutors put Graf away for life after his two stepsons burned to death in a frame storage shed behind his house.

Yet the state arson investigator had little grasp of how fire burns and employed “old wives’ tales” in reaching conclusions, one expert wrote. Worse, there was no “crime scene” to examine, since the burned-up shed had been knocked down by volunteer firefighters and hauled off to a dump.

Graf, at the very least, deserves another day in court.

That’s consistent with one major theme in the Forensic Science Commission’s final Willingham report. It stressed the “duty to correct” when investigators become aware of advances in fire science that could reverse a criminal conviction.

State Fire Marshal Chris Connealy is taking that seriously and breaking ground with the panel of experts for re-evaluation of old cases. He’s working closely with lawyers from the Innocence Project of Texas, a group sometimes marginalized by law enforcement types.

Breakthroughs come even with odd bedfellows, and that’s progress, too, if justice is the goal.