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.