By Janet Jacobs
The City of Corsicana is questioning the Texas Forensic Science Commission’s ability to look at the case of Cameron Todd Willingham, since it happened 14 years before the commission was created.
The law allows the panel to examine cases still pending, or people in prison as of Sept. 1, 2005, but Willingham was tried in 1992, and executed in February 2004.
In creating the Commission, the law is meant to affect active cases of injustice, argues Terry Jacobson, Corsicana city attorney in a Oct. 7 letter to the Commission.
The evidence was gathered and entered into evidence 14 years before the bill became law, Jacobson points out. “The city is cooperating with the Forensic Science Commission,” Jacobson said, adding that the city would like to see the commission address the jurisdiction question.
The newly appointed head of the commission, John Bradley, Williamson County district attorney, declined to comment on whether or not his commission has the authority to look into the case.
Bradley was appointed to the commission Sept. 30, replacing then-chairman Sam Bassett. Unsure of his new assignment, Bradley canceled an impending meeting on the Willingham case.
“Given that the Willingham case is pending before the Commission, it would be inappropriate for me to comment,” Bradley said in an e-mail asking about the Commission’s jurisdiction.
Bradley is expected to speak out about the Willingham case on Nov. 10, during a special hearing of the Texas Senate Criminal Justice Committee.
Chairman of the senate committee, John Whitmire, Houston Democrat, said he intends to ask Bradley if the Commission has enough money, and whether it intends to continue with the Willingham inquiry, Whitmire said.
And if not, then why not.
The creation of the commission back in 2005 was primarily a response to the problems with the Houston crime lab at the time, Whitmire explained.
“We were looking for a way to clean up the Houston mess and found out other agencies in the state had problems, including DPS,” Whitmire said. The legislature created the commission to review cases and render reports on whether or not labs and entities were qualified.
“And along comes out of the blue the complaint, probably filed by the Innocence Project (regarding Willingham),” Whitmire said.
The original intent was not to look at arson, but it left some freedom to examine older cases and look for errors in the science, he said.
“I don’t think the Forensics Commission is an Innocence Commission, it’s not to retry the Willingham case. I didn’t have that in mind — to review and retry old cases,” Whitmire explained. “We’ve got appellate courts to do that.”
However, Whitmire said he doesn’t see the harm in hearing what the experts have to say.
“No one should be afraid of the facts,” he said. “The facts will never change. To say they don’t have the jurisdiction, so what? I’m not sure that was the concept we had in mind, to determine guilt or innocence of Willingham. That’s not my job or the Commission’s job. They’re supposed to find the best forensics practices and use that to go forward.”
The age of the case didn’t matter to the members of the original panel, said Sam Bassett, former chairman of the Texas Forensics Science Commission.
“The Commission voted unanimously to proceed with the investigation(s), even though the incidents giving rise to them were old,” Bassett explained in an e-mail to the Daily Sun Tuesday. “The statute does not provide any time limits and actually mentions retrospective re-examinations. There is nothing in the statute that states that investigations must be ‘current’ or ‘recent,’ only that they must involve issues that would substantially affect the integrity of results of a forensic analysis.”
The Commission may look at any forensics lab, facility or entity that conducts forensics analysis, which includes the State Fire Marshall’s office, Bassett said.
“The three investigations that were being conducted at the time of my removal were based upon complaints. Again, decisions to proceed on those three cases were unanimous,” Bassett stated.
Sen. Juan “Chuy” Hinojosa, D-McAllen, said he wanted to give the Commission freedom to look at any investigative techniques.
“There’s no statute of limitations on any of the investigations the Forensic Science Commission does,” Hinojosa said. “I think people confuse this. The purpose of the commission was never meant to decide guilt or innocence, but to scrutinize the methodology used in cases, so if there’s a mistake we could learn from the mistake and make the system better.”
“They’re there to review the evidence, the technology and whatever methods were used to convict the person, like junk science,” Hinojosa said. “The criminal justice system has to have the trust of the public to make sure we’re convicting people who are guilty, especially when they’re sentenced to death. They’re just doing their job to make sure the methods used at the time were valid. It’s so we don’t make another mistake in using faulty evidence.”
Janet Jacobs may be reached via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org