Sunday, September 19, 2010

Whitewash Halted

When last I posted about Cameron Todd Willingham I titled the post "Whitewash Coming?"
That was when the Texas Forensic Science Commission was presented with a draft report on the Willingham case concluding that the science employed may have been "flawed," but that the bozos who did the incompetent science investigation weren't negligent and didn't commit misconduct.  Of course, that was essentially irrelevant.  
It didn't get to the Commission's formal job: Looking at what went wrong and how to do things better.
It didn't get to the job everyone (except the governor and John Bradley) was really after: A dispassionate appraisal of the evidence which would show that Texas killed a man when there was no credible evidence that he was guilty: or even that a crime had been committed.
That was a first draft.  A second draft, one Bradley hoped and expected would formally be adopted at the Commission's next meeting, which was held on Friday, was circulated last week.  The inquiry would be over.
No need to actually hear from the experts.  No need for the entire Commission - including the forensic scientists, actually to examine the evidence.  No need to find out if the Texas Fire Marshall, Paul Maldonado, who claims now to be using the same best science it used then (which wasn't the best science then and sure isn't now) and stands by the old results is a liar, a fool, a toady, or a coward.  (Of course, it's possible he could be more than one of those things.)  No need for much of anything.
Then, suddenly, something went right.
Bradley lost control.
The scientists revolted.  So did the others.  Jeff Carlton's AP report summarizes what happened.
A Texas panel on Friday declined to clear fire investigators of professional misconduct for determining that arson caused a 1991 fire that killed three girls and led to the conviction and execution of their father.
Instead, the Texas Forensic Science Commission planned to meet in November to question fire experts about the professional standards used by arson investigators in the early 1990s. The commissioners are withholding judgment on whether investigators were wrong to say arson caused the blaze.
That decision came over the fierce objections of the commission chairman, John Bradley, who was appointed last year by Gov. Rick Perry. Bradley urged his colleagues to determine the investigators acted appropriately, and at one point he raised his voice and accused the commissioners of "shirking their duties."
Bradley pushed his colleagues to reach a consensus. He argued that either there was insufficient evidence to determine professional misconduct or there was no misconduct, and therefore investigators met the standards of their day.
But the panel disagreed, saying there appeared to be evidence that the Corsicana Fire Department and the state fire marshal's office were not following the standards from the early 1990s.
So they want to do their job.
Of course, they see the job differently than Bradley does.  He thinks the job is to approve what happened and close the books.  They think they're supposed to actually determine what happened and whether it was right.  To Bradley that's "shirking."  Interesting definition.  
And there's more.  Jennifer Emily in the Dallas Morning News reports this exchange.
Most commission members seemed to believe that the state should investigate other old arson cases to see if faulty science was used.
Peerwani said that he has called for a review of all deaths connected to arson cases over the last 20 years in his own jurisdiction, Tarrant County, to determine whether faulty science was used.
Bradley disagreed about the need for mandated reviews of old cases, saying that when DNA became a scientific standard, labs did not automatically test old cases.
But Eisenberg said that anytime there has been a question about a case in his jurisdiction, he has conducted DNA testing.
"But there's not a law," Bradley said.
"I don't need a law," Eisenberg shot back.
It doesn't get much starker than that.  Bradley can't think of why you'd even consider correcting mistakes and exonerating the innocent if you aren't legally obligated to.  (It's actually not all clear that he thinks you should bother even if it is legally required.)  The other Commissioners, well, they seem to understand.
The next hearing is tentatively scheduled for Nov. 17.  They're planning to hear from a panel of experts.
It's too soon for real optimism.  The Commissioners may yet fold.  Bradley and Perry may yet find a way to derail honest inquiry.  There may yet be a whitewash.
But for now, at least briefly, there's a glimmer.
Science, integrity, honest inquiry.  In Texas.
Where the skies are not cloudy all day.

1 comment:

  1. Unfortunately, I know something about these things.

    In any fire the public utility is called right after the fire department so they can cut off gas to the scene. The utility company sends an insurance investigator, usually a retired fireman, who is very inclined to find some cause for the fire that deflects liability concerns away from the public utility.

    Arson happens to be a cause that cuts off civil liability for anyone else. Unsurprisingly, then, there is a bias in favor of finding arson.

    The fire department personnel defer to the insurance company investigator, who is both seen as more of an "expert" and is also highly regarded for his financial success, since he earns a salary for his work with the public utility while he collects his firefighter pension.

    Fire investigation is often a joke.