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Senate OKs Forensic Science Commission Bill

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

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

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

State Sen. Juan "Chuy" Hinojosa, D-McAllen, said SB 1658 was intended to clear up confusion over the role of the Forensic Science Commission, which has been embroiled in an investigation of the Cameron Todd Willingham case for about two years.

Willingham was convicted of setting fire to his Corsicana 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 group that seeks to exonerate wrongfully convicted people, to review the Willingham case for professional negligence in 2006. It took up the case 3 years later, but the investigation has been fraught with political uproar that has stymied the process.

The commission has approved a final draft of its report on the Willingham case, but the nine-member board declined to make a final ruling about whether there was professional misconduct or negligence on the part of arson investigators because it has been seeking clarification on its jurisdiction from Attorney General Greg Abbott.

Under Hinojosa's bill, the commission would have jurisdiction to investigate the work of both accredited and unaccredited crime labs. It would also be able to initiate investigations of forensic science procedures on its own, without an outside complaint. The bill would clarify that the commission's role is not to issue a determination of guilt or innocence in any case. And it would prohibit the use of commission reports in any civil or criminal litigation.

Hinojosa's bill would also reduce the size of the commission. Its membership would drop from nine to seven, including a prosecutor, a defense lawyer and five forensic science experts.

"We're hoping this should make it a commission geared more toward expert advice and knowledge," said state Sen. Joan Huffman, R-Southside Place.

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State government Joan Huffman Juan "Chuy" Hinojosa State agencies