6:15 p.m. Friday update: After saying earlier today that the Forensic Science Commission reform bill was likely dead because the House Homeland Security and Public Safety Committee had held its final meeting, chairman Rep. Sid Miller, R-Stephenville, convened another meeting and the measure passed out of committee this evening.
State Rep. Lon Burnam, D-Fort Worth, the bill's loudest House detractor so far, said he plans to offer amendments to the bill when it comes to the House floor that would address the problems he and other opponents of the measure have. His amendment would increase public access to commission information and it would maintain nine commission members.
"There are some good things in this bill," Burnam said. "If this amendment goes on I am going to vote for this bill."
The measure will now head to the House floor for approval, where Burnam's amendment will be debated.
A bill that would clarify and expand the jurisdiction of the Forensic Science Commission appears to have fizzled in the Texas House after legislators became worried that Gov. Rick Perry was using it to take control of what has become a highly politicized and controversial entity.
State Sen. Juan "Chuy" Hinojosa, D-McAllen, the author of the bill, called its demise the result of a knee-jerk reaction by lawmakers and by the New York-based Innocence Project based on their dislike of Perry. "The governor had absolutely nothing to do with this bill," Hinojosa said.
Last week, the Senate approved SB 1658, which was intended to clear up confusion over the role of the commission, which has been embroiled in an investigation of the Cameron Todd Willingham case for about two years. But after its passage, the Innocence Project issued a harsh critique of the bill, saying it would weaken the commission, allowing Perry to take control of its makeup and reducing the commission's transparency.
"While these amendments may serve the Governor, they are terrible for all other Texans except the real perpetrators of crimes who go free when the wrong person is convicted by bad forensic evidence — or when jurors refuse to convict based on proper forensic evidence because they believe that past forensic problems were not fixed," said Stephen Saloom, policy director for the Innocence Project, which is affiliated with Cardozo School of Law.
Under Hinojosa's bill, the Forensic Science 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 reduce the commission membership from nine to seven, including a prosecutor, a defense lawyer and five forensic science experts. The terms of all of the current commissioners who weren't selected by the governor would be shortened to expire as soon as possible. The governor would appoint all of the new members, who would be subject to Senate confirmation. Public access to documents that the commission used in investigations would be limited until the investigation was complete. The commission would be prohibited from issuing any findings about guilt or innocence, and the commission's final report on any case would be inadmissible in future court proceedings.
State Rep. Lon Burnam, D-Fort Worth, a member of the House Homeland Security and Public Safety Committee, worked to derail the legislation, which he said was a blatant attempt by Perry to interfere with the commission's work. "I feel like this is a last-minute sleight of hand to try to undermine the functioning and the open process," Burnam said. The bill failed to get approval at the committee's last meeting of the session this afternoon. If it is to pass at all, the measure would have to be attached to another bill, and Hinojosa said that was unlikely.
State Sen. Rodney Ellis, D-Houston, chairman of the Innonence Project, said while the commission's operations haven't been perfect, the status quo would be better than the changes proposed. "No bill is better than what that bill had become," Ellis said.
Hinojosa said he was disappointed that his bill seemed unlikely to pass because it would have clarified ongoing questions about the commission's jurisdiction in the Willingham case. The Corsicana man was convicted of setting fire to his 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 to review the Willingham case for professional negligence in 2006. It took up the case three 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 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.
Hinojosa said now it's the Innocence Project and its supporters who are playing politics. "It is amazing to me that the Innocence Project, out of New York City, wants to tell Texas legislators how to do Texas laws."