Tribpedia: Texas Forensic Science Commission

Tribpedia

The Texas Forensic Science Commission is a nine-member oversight panel charged with investigating complaints of forensic misconduct that might affect the integrity of a forensic analysis of crimes. The once obscure committee catapulted into the spotlight in late 2009, after a shake-up by Governor Rick Perry stalled an inquiry into whether the state used faulty evidence in executing an innocent ...

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Reforms Expand Forensic Science Commission Authority

State Sen. Juan "Chuy" Hinojosa, D-McAllen, discusses CSSB1420 the Texas Dept. of Transportation (TXDOT) sunset bill on April 18, 2011
State Sen. Juan "Chuy" Hinojosa, D-McAllen, discusses CSSB1420 the Texas Dept. of Transportation (TXDOT) sunset bill on April 18, 2011

Legislators are planning to give the Texas Forensic Science Commission authority to review many more labs and types of forensic analysis and to double the agency’s budget, hoping it will become a national model for the criminal justice system. 

 

Chris Connealy: The TT Interview

The state fire marshal talks about how he’ll implement the changes in a Texas Forensic Science Commission report, challenges with funding, some of his ideas for educating fire investigators and ways to bring more experts to the scene when arson occurs. 

Morton Case is Focus of Williamson County DA Race

Michael Morton’s name isn’t on the ballot, but he has become the central figure in the heated campaign to become tough-on-crime Williamson County's next district attorney. Incumbent John Bradley, not one to shy away from political fights, is taking on a challenger who is campaigning on his highest-profile mistake.

Forensic Science Panel Recommends Arson Probe

The momentous and long-awaited move was welcomed by the family of Cameron Todd Willingham, who was convicted of killing his three daughters in a 1991 arson fire. He was executed in 2004, and scientists have since discredited the science that was used to cement his arson conviction.

Debra Jan Baker, Michael Morton (center), Williamson County District Attorney John Bradley
Debra Jan Baker, Michael Morton (center), Williamson County District Attorney John Bradley

DA Agrees DNA Evidence Doesn't Support Morton's Guilt

Michael Morton, who served 25 years in prison for the murder of his wife Christine, will now be released. The dramatic development occurred after years of resistance from Williamson County prosecutors to allow the DNA testing that cleared Morton — and that suggests that the real killer murdered again 16 months later.

Forensic Panel Calls for Review of Past Arson Cases

The Texas Forensic Science Commission said it would not issue a finding of misconduct against the state fire marshal in the Cameron Todd Willingham arson case. But the commission recently reached agreement with the state fire marshal’s office to review other arson cases that may have resulted from faulty evidence.

Advocates Urge Panel to Continue Willingham Probe

The Innocence Project is urging the Forensic Science Commission, meeting today, to forge ahead with its investigation of the Cameron Todd Willingham case despite a ruling from the state’s top lawyer that seemed to limit the panel’s authority. 

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

DNA Implicates Another Man in 25-Year-Old Murder Case

New DNA test results in a 25-year-old murder case cast doubt on the conviction of Michael Morton, who was accused of killing his wife Christine in their Williamson County home on Aug. 13, 1986. Morton's attorneys have asked a court to recuse John Bradley, the district attorney and former chairman of the Texas Forensic Science Commission, from the case, saying he fought to withhold evidence showing Morton did not murder his wife.

Dr. Nizam Peerwani: The TT Interview

Dr. Nizam Peerwani talks with The Texas Tribune about his new role as chairman of the Texas Forensic Science Commission.

A transcript of the interview follows:

TT: Tell us about your background and your work.

Peerwani: I’m a graduate of the American University, and then I went to Baylor in Dallas, I’m a board-certified pathologist, and of course work as a county medical examiner. I was hired in 1979, so, good Lord, it’s 32 years now.

TT: How well has the Commission handled the Cameron Todd Willingham investigation?

Peerwani: From the very onset there was this issue that was raised by the Commission whether or not the Commission had the jurisdiction to accept that case. As you know, we had written a letter to the Attorney General's office, I think this was in late January of this year. And there are there three major issues that face the commission and we need some definitions. One of the things is that, should the commission accept cases that predate its creation? The commission was created in 2005. Now as you know, the Willingham case took place in 1991.
So that’s an issue, whether we have in fact have legal jurisdiction to accept the case or not. But there are many among us who felt that since the case has been accepted, that it is our duty to bring a closure to the case. And that’s why we continued, and I supported that. At the end of the day, every member of the commission fully understands that it is not the duty of the commission to decide guilt or innocence.

TT: What if the AG rules that the commission can't investigate older cases?

Peerwani: I’m afraid that if that’s what the AG recommends, then this particular case is not going to be reopened.

TT: What lessons did the Commission learn from the Willingham case?

Peerwani: I think that the Willingham case was an important case for the Forensic Science Commission, because the recommendations at the end of the investigation are very important, and I truly believe that if some of the recommendations, if not all of the recommendations, are adopted, we’ll have a much better environment in which science is practiced in the court of law. But we also understand the limitations of going back into old cases. This was a case that took place 20 years ago, and it does create a lot of issues. One of the things that we debated at the commission level is the duty to correct, and the duty to inform. If errors have been made in the past, because either of human error or because science has migrated, what is the responsibility of the agency? And I think there is no clarity on that.

TT: Do you think Willingham committed arson?

Peerwani: Those indicators were certainly state of the art in 1991, but we now know based on everything we understand about fire science that they were incorrect. So if that was the only basis on which Willingham case was guilty, then you can say that we have a problem with the case. But there were other issues. There were eyewitness accounts, there were hospital and doctor testimony given, and investigative findings, so, you know, I was really focused on the fire science, and I think the fire science was wrong.

TT: What role does the Commission play in forensic science education?

Peerwani: Well, the commission’s role, I think, is to define, what really science is all about, and to make sure that the attorneys and judges who apply the science understand the limitations of science. We will now come to realize that we should not be absolutely relying on science, because science has also got flaws. And that there should be balance in the court of law.

Dr. Nizam Peerwani, Tarrant County medical examiner, is the new chairman of the Texas Forensic Science Commission.
Dr. Nizam Peerwani, Tarrant County medical examiner, is the new chairman of the Texas Forensic Science Commission.

New Head of Forensic Science Panel Takes On Arson Case

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Death and the science of it have dominated Dr. Nizam Peerwani's 30-year career in the Tarrant County medical examiner’s office. Now, he's taking on a very live controversy as chairman of the Texas Forensic Science Commission: the continuing investigation into the arson science that led to execution of Cameron Todd Willingham.

TribLive: A Conversation About Cameron Todd Willingham

Following our Tuesday night screening of Incendiary: The Willingham Case, I talked about the science of fire and death penalty politics with the filmmakers, Steve Mims and Joe Bailey Jr.; former Forensic Science Commission Chairman Sam Bassett; former Texas Gov. Mark White; and acting Corsicana City Attorney Terry Jacobson.

Texas Forensic Science Commission members (left to right) Dr Stanley Hamilton,  Dr. Nizam Peerwani and Lance Evans on April 14th, 2011
Texas Forensic Science Commission members (left to right) Dr Stanley Hamilton, Dr. Nizam Peerwani and Lance Evans on April 14th, 2011

Perry Chooses New Forensic Science Board Chairman

Gov. Rick Perry today announced he has appointed Dr. Nizam Peerwani, a well-known Fort Worth medical examiner, to lead the Texas Forensic Science Commission. He replaces Williamson County District Attorney John Bradley as leader of the panel that has been embroiled in controversy practically since its inception. Bradley failed to win Senate confirmation during the legislative session that ended last month.

Sen. Juan "Chuy" Hinojosa, D-McAllen, talks to an aide on the Senate floor on May 9, 2011.  Hinojosa is under considereation for a spot on the budget conference committee.
Sen. Juan "Chuy" Hinojosa, D-McAllen, talks to an aide on the Senate floor on May 9, 2011. Hinojosa is under considereation for a spot on the budget conference committee.

Updated: Forensic Science Commission Bill Revived

A bill that would clarify and expand the jurisdiction of the Forensic Science Commission appeared to have fizzled in the Texas House. But tonight lawmakers revived the bill and voted it out of committee.

Activist Jamie Bush attends the Texas Forensic Science Commission board meeting on September 17, 2010 in Dallas, Texas.
Activist Jamie Bush attends the Texas Forensic Science Commission board meeting on September 17, 2010 in Dallas, Texas.

Senate OKs Forensic Science Commission Bill

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The mission and jurisdiction of the ever-controversial Texas Forensic Science Commission would get some clarification under a bil the Senate approved today.

John Bradley, left, is the new chair of the Texas Forensic Science Commission. Cameron Todd Willingham, right, was executed for setting a house fire that killed his three daughters.
John Bradley, left, is the new chair of the Texas Forensic Science Commission. Cameron Todd Willingham, right, was executed for setting a house fire that killed his three daughters.

Bassett: Politics Stymied Willingham Investigation

The former chairman of a state forensic board applauded the current commissioners' report on the arson investigation used to convict Cameron Todd Willingham, a review that recommended wide-ranging improvements in fire science. But he said he's deeply concerned that politics interfered in their ability to take a stronger stance on the case.

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

Board Approves Report on Willingham

Members of a state forensic board today accepted 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.

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

Still No Decision on Negligence in Willingham Case

After releasing a draft report on the case of convicted arsonist Cameron Todd Willingham, state forensic board members refused again today to rule on whether investigators in the case were professionally negligent in deciding the fire that killed Willingham's three daughters was intentionally ignited.

Williamson County District Attorney John Bradley is the new chair of the Texas Forensic Science Commission.
Williamson County District Attorney John Bradley is the new chair of the Texas Forensic Science Commission.

Commission Frustrated With Willingham Investigation

Members of the Texas Forensic Science Commission expressed concerns today about the progress — or lack thereof — in the case of convicted arsonist Cameron Todd Willingham before ending a yet another meeting without a decision about the evidence that was used to send the Corsicana man to the death chamber in 2004.

John Bradley, left, is the new chair of the Texas Forensic Science Commission. Cameron Todd Willingham, right, was executed for setting a house fire that killed his three daughters.
John Bradley, left, is the new chair of the Texas Forensic Science Commission. Cameron Todd Willingham, right, was executed for setting a house fire that killed his three daughters.

Arson Experts Testify in Willingham Investigation

The Texas Forensic Science Commission heard testimony from four fire experts today to gather evidence about the reliability of the arson investigation that led to the 2004 execution of Cameron Todd Willingham. Half said investigators got it right, and half said they were wrong.

September 17, 2010 - (l-r) Judy Willingham Cavner and Eugenia Willingham, both relatives of Cameron Todd Willingham, attend the Texas Forensic Science Commission meeting on September 17, 2010 in Dallas, Texas.
September 17, 2010 - (l-r) Judy Willingham Cavner and Eugenia Willingham, both relatives of Cameron Todd Willingham, attend the Texas Forensic Science Commission meeting on September 17, 2010 in Dallas, Texas.

Forensic Panel Questions Fire Experts on Willingham

Watch the Innocence Project livestream of the Texas Forensic Science Commission, which gathers today in Austin to question arson experts on the evidence used to hand Cameron Todd Willingham the death penalty in 1992.

An exclusive excerpt from "Incendiary," a forthcoming documentary about the Cameron Todd Willingham case.

An Early Look at the New Willingham Documentary

Filmmakers Steve Mims and Joe Bailey Jr. are putting the finishing touches on a new documentary about the Cameron Todd Willingham case that focuses almost entirely on forensics — on the science behind arson investigations like the one that led to the Corsicana man's arrest, conviction and execution following the death of his three small children in a 1991 house fire. Mims and Bailey aren't political activists; the former lectures in the University of Texas' Department of Radio-Television-Film, while the latter is a graduate of UT's law school. But they were so moved by an article about the Willingham case in The New Yorker that they decided to tackle one of the most controversial topics in the modern era of state's criminal justice system. Well in advance of the film's release, they've carved out this excerpt of about eight minutes exclusively for the Tribune.