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John Terzano

John Terzano

Posted: October 9, 2009 09:08 AM

Texas Cannot Wait for Good Science in the Courtroom

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Last week, Texas Governor Rick Perry removed three members from the Texas Forensic Science Commission. The changes come at a critical juncture in the investigation of the flawed forensics behind the conviction of Cameron Willingham, who was executed in 2004 for allegedly setting the fire that killed his three daughters.

Governor Perry's removal of these three members from this commission has drawn national attention and sharp criticism because there is concern that his appointed replacement of the commission chair, John Bradley, may slow or stifle the investigation. Bradley has already canceled a scheduled meeting on October 2, where the commission's retained fire expert, Craig Beyler, was to present and discuss his report. Beyler's report, released to the media under public information laws, confirms findings from three other expert reviews: that the arson evidence in the Willingham case was without scientific validity.

The canceled meeting is not the only casualty of this drastic change. Commission members have also decided to postpone a series of important roundtable discussions focused on a recent report of the National Academies of Science (NAS) about serious weaknesses in the nation's forensic systems because of the distractions caused by the shakeup.

Against the backdrop of an intense gubernatorial primary battle between Governor Perry and Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison, Perry's critics have pointed to the appearance that political considerations are behind the move to replace the commissioners, especially given the absence of any substantive reasons from the governor for the changes.

In the middle of the subsequent media firestorm, and with competing agendas in play, it is easy to lose sight of why the Texas Forensic Science Commission and its investigations are so important. This is ultimately not about politics or the death penalty. At stake is the integrity of scientific evidence in Texas courtrooms, and the erosion of public confidence in its criminal justice system that occurs when that science is unreliable or flat wrong.

Willingham's case is a troubling example of the kinds of forensic failures documented in the NAS report. Thousands of criminal cases will proceed this year in Texas and across the country in which forensic evidence will play a crucial role. But just as scientific evidence is increasingly relied upon, we are learning that that evidence is coming out of a system that, according to the NAS, is "badly fragmented," and lacks the oversight, independence, objectivity and quality standards needed to ensure reliability. Many issues identified in the NAS report are explored in The Justice Project's policy review, Improving the Practice and Use of Forensic Science.

The sooner Texas comes to a full reckoning with the problems in the Willingham case, the sooner we can begin to develop the kinds of oversight systems that can prevent bad science from undermining justice. The job of the Forensic Science Commission is first and foremost to investigate allegations of forensic negligence or misconduct. But its true value is not in looking back. It must look back in order to confront mistakes so that we can improve reliability moving forward. Until we put in place appropriate oversight and safeguards, innocent defendants will be at risk of conviction based on flawed forensics.

All of the Forensic Science Commissioners, including the three replaced by the governor, have done an excellent job serving the state. They have proceeded methodically, with great caution and with the highest regard for fairness and duty. After years of delay in getting the commission funded, these public servants had finally begun to conduct the business they were asked to. It is troubling that the commission's work is now derailed when they are finally poised to deliver on their mission.

Governor Perry and the new chair of the Forensic Science Commission have the chance to prove their critics wrong: the governor, by filling the remaining vacancy quickly, and the new chair, by promptly resuming the commission's business, without regard to politics or hot button issues, but solely in the service of science, truth and justice.

John F. Terzano is President of The Justice Project, a nonpartisan organization that works to increase fairness and accuracy in the criminal justice system.