The Texas Forensic Science Commission (TFSC) issued sixteen recommendations on Friday, April 15th, which will provide guidance for investigators, attorneys, and lawmakers charged with looking into potential arsons. The recommendations, which include calls for more education and training for arson investigators, as well as a new system for reviewing closed cases as science evolves, represent good faith efforts to improve Texas’ forensic science in the face of serious questions about the methods used to convict Cameron Todd Willingham, a Corsicana man who was executed in 2004 for allegedly starting a fire which took the lives of his three children.
Mr. Willingham, an unemployed mechanic, consistently maintained his innocence throughout the course of his incarceration, and multiple posthumous investigations have revealed that there was no conclusive evidence that the fire was set intentionally. The nine-member commission has been tasked with sorting out exactly what happened in the Willingham case and its reports are designed to provide a framework which aligns Texas’ procedures with the most modern scientific techniques.
Unfortunately, the TFSC has faced resistance as it searches for the truth, much of it coming from the Governor’s office. Governor Rick Perry seems to have a vested interest in suppressing debate over the circumstances of Mr. Willingham’s conviction as it was he who ignored scientific studies which suggested that there was “nothing to suggest to any reasonable arson investigator that this was an arson fire” when he denied Mr. Willingham’s clemency request in 2004. Governor Perry has played politics with the Commission, changing its composition right before it was scheduled to review a report which took serious issue with the trial testimony used to convict Mr. Willingham. The new Commissioner cancelled this meeting, introducing another year of delay before a July 2010 panel issued analysis which condemned the prosecution’s “flawed science.”
This sort of political gamesmanship is not completely absent from the Commission’s current proceedings, as last week’s report does not, and will not, include any official assessments of investigator misconduct until it receives word from the state’s attorney general who will decide if such sanctions are within the Commission’s jurisdiction. According to Sam Bassett, the Commissioner deposed by Perry in 2009, such judgments are already within TFSC’s purview, and the current maneuvering indicates that “politics rather than science will influence the decision.”
In spite of these concerns, the report represents an important tool for preventing miscarriages of justice like those experienced by Mr. Willingham from happening again. As long as Texas continues to execute people at an alarmingly fast rate, there will be a premium on devising safeguards which will prevent further wrongful convictions, and in this respect, the new regulations are truly life savers.
Posted in Blog, Innocence
Comments are now closed for this item.
Comment by , Apr 28th, 2011 12:04am
thank you for your sharing!!!