A state commission reviewing the quality of arson investigations that helped send a Corsicana man to his execution came within a hair's breadth today of deciding not to censure the state fire marshal's office for shoddy work -- then decided to put the controversial matter on hold until its October meeting.
Today's decision to defer action came as the group considered a draft report in the case of Cameron Todd Willingham, who was executed in 2004 for killing his three young children in a December 1991 house fire.
In the draft, commissioners noted they were hesitant to make a stronger statement in the case because a recent state attorney general's opinion that suggests the Willingham case is outside their jurisdiction.
Regardless of what statement is eventually made, and how strong it is, this essentially ends the Texas Forensic Science Commission's work on the matter, because of a prior ruling from the state's attorney general, Greg Abbott, that placed limitations on what evidentiary matters the Commission was allowed to consider. As the Texas Tribune noted yesterday, Friday was the last day they could probe the Willingham matter.
Sam Bassett, the original chair of the Texas Forensic Science Commission, who endured no small amount of political pressure from the office of Gov. Rick Perry, before ultimately being removed from the Commission in favor of a Perry ally, sounded a downcast note at the news. He tells the Huffington Post:
It is a sad day for criminal justice in Texas as the Forensic Science Commission has shelved the Willingham investigation. The Commission members may have felt they had no choice, given the recently released Attorney General's Opinion. It seems to me that the opinion by the Attorney General was the culmination of an effort which began in February, 2009 when the Governor's General Counsel and Assistant General Counsel made it clear to me that the Commission "should not be investigating" the Willingham matter. Their wishes have been carried out, at least for now.
What has been lost is the fact that Mr. Willingham and others were convicted of arson related crimes based upon faulty scientific principles and misleading testimony. This begs the question, "Does anyone really care?" I know that many in Texas and the nation care about these issues. I'm hopeful that true leaders of Texas will step up to the plate to amend the statute to leave no question that the improvements necessary to move into the 21st century of forensic science should not be limited to cases where testing took place in 2005 and beyond. Texas can do better.
As the Tribune reported, Willingham's cousin Patricia Ann Willingham-Cox, pled Thursday for the Commission to stand up for something sensible: "You can't uninvestigate a case you've already investigated. You can't unacknowledge what you've already acknowledged." But as the Commission seems to agree that they are hamstrung by Abbott's ruling, that is evidently what is going to happen.