Questions of Politics Persist as Work of the Texas Forensic Science Commission is Delayed
Last month, the Senate Criminal Justice Committee of the Texas Legislature held a hearing reviewing the newly reconstituted Texas Forensic Science Commission (FSC), a government agency that gathers information and reports on the use of science in criminal investigations. At the end of September, Gov. Rick Perry dismissed three members of the FSC days before they were scheduled to hear testimony by fire expert Dr. Craig Beyler on the accuracy of evidence presented in the Cameron Todd Willingham arson-murder case. Willingham was executed under Gov. Perry’s watch in 2004, and reports indicate information calling into question the arson evidence was given to the governor before the execution. Gov. Perry’s dismissal of the FSC members has delayed review of this and two other cases, quite possibly until well after the March primary.
The Criminal Justice Committee called newly appointed Forensic Science Commission Chairman and Williamson County District Attorney John Bradley to testify. Bradley had three main points. First, a lack of resources was limiting the ability of the FSC to investigate forensic evidence used in Texas courts. Second, Bradley outlined the various reasons the work of the FSC would be delayed, including the lack of rules governing the FSC’s operation. These delays may even last after the election cycle. Finally, Bradley argued for greater secrecy in the review of forensic evidence, claiming it will reduce liability for officials and whistleblowers. (The Star-Telegram revealed that Bradley wants all of the FSC’s email correspondence deleted or sent to him.)
At least one committee member disagreed with Bradley’s assessment that the FSC was under-resourced. Prior to changes in personnel, the commission was reviewing three cases including Beyler’s report, which apparently had reached conclusions worth public note in the Willingham case. It is hard to see how the previously functional commission is now suddenly stopped in its tracks by a lack of resources.
Delays in the FSC’s work are self-inflicted. With Bradley in charge, the commission has blurred the line between forensic science investigation and traditional crime investigation by turning to staffers at the Texas Supreme Court for assistance in developing commission rules, and getting assistance from the Texas Rangers to develop investigative protocols. Both of these new projects are expected to delay consideration of the Willingham case, and any other cases, indefinitely.
Further, the committee did not share Bradley’s interest in making either the FSC meetings or findings exempt from public meetings and records laws. Other commentators (including Rick Casey of the Houston Chronicle) have noted the commission is investigating “science, not crime.” The commission should not have concerns regarding secrecy if the commission focuses on the accurate analysis of forensic evidence. Until Bradley took over, this was clearly the role the commission was playing.
Meanwhile, Beyler’s report assessing the Willingham fire languishes and waits for the hearing that was only two days away before the Perry shakeup. If Gov. Perry’s goal is to try to hide the fact that Texas executed Cameron Todd Willingham even though there is no evidence that he committed arson, he will fail. Four independent examinations of the fire all conclude there was no evidence of arson, indicating Willingham’s innocence.
The goal of the legislature, the FSC and the governor should be the same: ensure justice in the Texas criminal justice system. Faulty forensic science, poor forensics laboratories, and a variety of other forensics-related issues continue to be concerns in Texas. There is no need to delay or hide the truth. For Chairman Bradley, transparency should be Rule No. 1. If Chairman Bradley and Gov. Perry are allowing politics to delay the work of the FSC for political reasons, the cost will be borne by wrongly convicted Texans, their families and the entire state’s faith in the criminal justice system.
— Christopher Hill, ACLU Capital Punishment Project;
Matthew Simpson, Travis Whetsell, and Sascha Weiss, ACLU of Texas