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Bill, Budget Expand Authority of Forensic Science Commission

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.

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. 

“The commission has really proven that its investigations are thorough, they’re fair, that the types of questions and inquiries the commission is involved in really do advance the cause of forensic science in the state,” said the agency’s general counsel, Lynn Garcia.

Lawmakers established the commission in 2005 to investigate allegations of professional negligence and misconduct in forensic labs with the hope of ensuring the integrity of forensic evidence used in the criminal justice system. The commission in 2008 became embroiled in a years-long political war over the death penalty case of Cameron Todd Willingham, which in past years helped to stymie reforms that lawmakers passed this session with little fanfare.

Cameron Todd Willingham was executed in 2004 for an alleged arson that killed his three children. Fire scientists argued that the forensic evaluation that determined Willingham deliberately set the fire was faulty and that the blaze was likely accidental. The New York-based Innocence Project filed a complaint with the Forensic Science Commission over the handling of the case, and it became a flashpoint in the debate over the Texas criminal justice system and its implementation of the death penalty.

Reforms in Senate Bill 1238 by state Sen. Juan “Chuy” Hinojosa, D-McAllen, stem from the commission’s involvement in the Willingham controversy. In 2010, former commission chairman John Bradley, who was then the Williamson County district attorney, asked Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott to issue an opinion on whether the agency had jurisdiction to investigate and rule on the validity of the science used in the Willingham case.

Abbott issued a ruling concluding that the commission’s authority was limited only to labs accredited by the Texas Department of Public Safety and only to a limited number of forensic science fields.

Hinojosa — who also wrote the 2005 bill that established the commission — said that opinion made the body’s authority much more limited than he intended when it was created. He proposed legislation last year expanding the authority, but that failed.

“At that time there were different groups and parties using the commission for their own political agendas, which was very unfortunate,” Hinojosa said.

Since then, the commission has completed its investigation of the Willingham case and issued recommendations for improving the use of fire science in arson cases. The commission also worked with the Innocence Project of Texas and the State Fire Marshal to investigate other potential cases where faulty scientific methods were used.

The commission has drawn national praise this year for its handling of another high-profile cases, including an investigation of Jonathan Salvador, whose mistakes in analyzing drug evidence at the Houston DPS crime lab have led to more than a dozen overturned convictions

“They’re doing a very good job, and they’re really just scratching the surface at finding some of the problems,” said Scott Henson, policy director for the Innocence Project of Texas.

Under SB 1238, which both the House and Senate have approved, the commission’s authority will be expanded to include both accredited and non-accredited crime labs. It will also have authority to investigate complaints involving many additional types of forensic science, including latent print examinations, breath-alcohol testing, voice analysis and forensic hypnosis. She said the commission would work to establish best practices to help those in the criminal justice field — in Texas and other states — understand what kind of evidence is reliable.

“Those are disciplines where there may be some real questions about the validity of methods being used,” said Garcia.

Exempted from the commission’s authority, though, are autopsies conducted by medical examiners. 

The commission’s budget would grow from $250,000 per year to $500,000 per year to help accomplish those goals under the 2014-15 state budget. If approved, it will be the commission’s first increase since it began in 2007.

“They will be able to identify junk science, which we’re trying to eliminate so that any forensic analysis is based on research and scientific facts,” Hinojosa said. “It’s incredibly important that the public have faith and confidence in the criminal justice system and that we don’t end up wrongfully convicting innocent people.”

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