Two state senators told the Texas Forensic Science Commission that its investigation of the arson case that led to the execution of Cameron Todd Willingham could be damaging public trust in the criminal justice system instead of bolstering it.
The commission is set to meet in Dallas on Friday to discuss the Willingham investigation. Willingham was executed in 2004 after a jury convicted him of setting a 1991 house fire in Corsicana that killed his three young daughters. After evidence in 2006 from the Innocence Project, a nonprofit legal organization that investigates inmates' claims of innocence, and a 2009 New Yorker article re-examining the case found that the original case was built on faulty evidence, the commission hired an independent expert to examine the validity of evidence used to convict Willingham. The expert's report, which concluded the fire was accidental, was initially set for a public hearing nearly a year ago. Now, at the hearing set for Friday, the commission is set to review a report that — in a draft version — concludes the opposite: that investigators did not commit professional negligence or misconduct and that they applied standard science in practice at the time. Click here to read a draft of the report.
The scheduled October 2009 hearing on the report by arson expert Craig Beyler, which concluded the initial investigation was flawed, was abruptly canceled when Gov. Rick Perry decided to replace some of the commission members. At a July meeting, the commission decided to use other experts, and at the hearing Friday, the Willingham case is the only major item up for discussion.
State Sens. Rodney Ellis, D-Houston, and Juan "Chuy" Hinojosa, D-McAllen, sent a letter Monday to the commission with a list of grievances about the way it has conducted the Willingham investigation. The senators wrote that the process has been too secretive, that it has been diluted and that the primary question in the case has not been addressed. They wrote: "It appears that you are not interested in looking at the 'big picture' component of this complaint: Did the State Fire Marshal commit professional negligence or misconduct if it failed to inform the courts, prosecutors, the Board of Pardons and Parole, and the Governor that flawed arson science may have been used to convict hundreds or thousands of defendants?"
The senators wrote that more than 225 people each year are sent to Texas prisons on arson convictions, and more than 700 current prisons are serving time for arson. "Texans need to be confident that the flawed science used to convict and execute Mr. Willingham wasn't used to wrongly imprison many others," they wrote.
We asked commission Chairman John Bradley, who canceled the October hearing on the original expert report after Perry appointed him, for a response to the senators' letter. He provided the draft report that the commission will debate Friday. And, apparently, he was unimpressed with the lawmakers' letter. Here is his e-mailed response to the Trib:
Please be sure to advise your readers that Rodney Ellis serves as chairman of the board of directors for the New York corporation run by the complainant in the Willingham case. Such an obvious conflict of interest should educate your readers as to the value of the letter.
If I was the chair of the firefighters union, wouldn't you question my objectivity? So, then, why does a New York lawyer and his chair get a pass on media scrutiny when their partnership would otherwise raise serious questions about their objectivity?
In addition, such contact by public officials outside the commission is frowned upon by the media when it comes from the executive branch. So, again, why do you apply no such standard to the legislative branch?
The Forensic Science Commission is an independent agency that will set aside the exaggerated claims and self-serving opinions of individuals outside the forensic field and concentrate on answering the single statutory question authorized by law to be answered. The rest is just a circus sideshow."
Update: Ellis emailed a response to the Tribune concerning Bradley's comments, posted below:
"It is disconcerting to hear that the Chairman of the Forensic Science Commission would characterize legislators' concern over the use of flawed science to convict Texans as a 'circus sideshow.' I co-authored the letter to the Forensic Science Commission because I was concerned that the Commission may be attempting to prematurely end an investigation that still has many unanswered questions that the public deserves a resolution to. It appears that other Commission members shared my concerns considering that the investigation is supposed to continue in a more thorough, transparent manner.
It is absurd to suggest that it is a conflict of interest to see that an objective, thorough investigation is conducted in the Willis/Willingham investigation because I serve as the Chairman of the Board of the Innocence Project. If anything, my position at the Innocence Project enhances my duty and ability to ensure that the criminal justice system in Texas continues to strive towards fairness and equality."