Board Approves Report on Willingham

Presiding Officer of the Texas Forensic Science Commission John Bradley during a commission meeting April 14th, 2011
Presiding Officer of the Texas Forensic Science Commission John Bradley during a commission meeting April 14th, 2011

The Forensic Science Commission voted out an amended version of a report on convicted arsonist Cameron Todd Willingham's case, but won't rule on professional negligence until the attorney general says whether they have jurisdiction to do so.

The final version will be available to the public on Monday. The original draft report, released Thursday, made recommendations to fire investigators, lawyers and judges and explicitly says the board will not rule on professional negligence while Attorney General Greg Abbott's decision is pending.

Willingham was convicted of setting fire to his Corscicana home and killing his three daughters in 1991, but he maintained his innocence. Following his execution in 2004, fire science experts questioned the evidence used to convict him.

The commission received a request from the Innocence Project, a New York-based ciinic that seeks to exonerate wrongfully convicted people, to review the Willingham case for professional negligence in 2006 and took up the case three years later. But Gov. Rick Perry replaced his appointees on the commission and named Williamson County District Attorney John Bradley as chairman.

The board met twice in January 2011 to hear testimony and decide how to move forward with the Willingham case, but Bradley called upon Abbott's office to figure out whether they had jurisdiction over the case. Commissioners urged Bradley to move forward and begin drafting the report while awaiting Abbott's opinion.

Today, members discussed one recommendation to create a multidisciplinary panel that would review pending arson cases, and Commissioner Sarah Kerrigan said the board should add language that would establish the panel to review arson cases retrospectively as the science evolves. "We're talking about science," she said. "It will naturally progress." Kerrigan said there is an obligation to tell stakeholders in the criminal justice system when the science and interpretation of the science changes.

Commissioners largely agreed. Commissioner Lance Evans said the recommendation does not touch on the Willingham investigation. But Bradley argued doing so would step on the toes of the attorney general.

After nearly 20 minutes in executive session, commissioners decided that the report will now say, "Accredited disciplines of forensic science have standards that promote the reexamination of cases when science has evolved to create a material difference in the original analysis or result." The standards include a duty to correct, to inform, to be transparent and to implement corrective action, and the commission recommends the state fire marshal's office adopt those standards, according to the new report.

Stephen Saloom, policy director for the Innocence Project, said that although the commission cannot make a decision on negligence, members improved the draft report. He said commission members overcame the obstacles, pollitics and distractions to write a report that addresses improvements in forensic evidence in arson cases and the duty to correct. "Within the limitations, they did an excellent job," he said.

 

Texas Tribune donors or members may be quoted or mentioned in our stories, or may be the subject of them. For a complete list of contributors, click here.