By Janet Jacobs
The Texas Forensic Science Commission is not going to debate the death penalty or decide the guilt or innocence of individual cases, said John Bradley, the head of the Texas Forensics Commission when he spoke Tuesday to the Texas Senate Committee for Criminal Justice in Austin.
Bradley, a Williamson County District Attorney, was appointed head of the commission at the beginning of October, just days before the commission was to hear a report on the case of Cameron Todd Willingham, a Corsicana man executed in 2004 for murdering his three daughters in a house fire.
The Innocence Project has challenged the forensics of the case, saying it used faulty science. The fire took place in 1991, and the trial was in 1992. Willingham’s various appeals and pleas for clemency were rejected over the course of his 12 years on death row.
In mid-August 2009, a report by Craig Beyler, a Baltimore fire expert, stated that arson could not be proven in the Willingham case. Opponents of the death penalty have said it’s proof that Willingham was innocent and unjustly executed.
Bradley said he considered it inappropriate for him to talk about pending cases, or express an opinion on a case before it’s heard by the commission.
“Will we proceed with the Willingham case?” he said. “I think I’ve made it clear in my editorial statements that absolutely we will.”
Bradley asked the senators for more resources, including more staff and funding, although he stopped short of requesting subpoena powers for the commission.
Senators told Bradley that they wanted the commission to look into forensics labs that were neglecting duties or producing false reports, and they wanted transparency in the investigations. Several senators also expressed concerns that the commission would become a political pawn in the upcoming governor’s race.
Bradley said he did not see his sudden appointment as a political ploy by Governor Rick Perry.
“It’s not my job here to defend any political party or any particular public official,” he said, adding that he was glad to see in the audience gubernatorial candidates who have “an interest in forensic science.”
He also said that he is not friends with Perry, nor has he discussed with Perry or the governor’s staff, what the commission should or should not do.
“Certainly, it’s without question that the timing of the appointments of this commission did seem to interrupt the process,” Bradley said. “I think that was inevitable, though, given the way the legislation structured the commission.”
Sen. John Whitmire, chairman of the senate committee on criminal justice, said the timing could have been a good thing, since it could result in a stronger commission with better results.
“The circumstances, the timing of those appointments could be a blessing,” Whitmire said.
He went on to challenge Bradley to make the commission a worthwhile organization that renews confidence in the Texas justice system. He pointed out that Houston’s crime lab has 4,000 unopened rape kits, and 1,000 pending rape cases.
“That’s a challenge to you, a charge,” Whitmire said.
Democrats on the senate committee asked repeatedly when the commission would resume its work examining the Willingham case.
“If I had a set of rules, I could tell you a timetable for the commission work,” Bradley responded. “I can tell you we’ll work diligently and give you an opinion when it’s ready.”
Bradley said the Beyler report would be one part of the process, but would not be the last word in the case.
“It’s interesting because different people have grabbed that report and announced that it means certain things,” Bradley said. “I keep reading that it means the state of Texas has executed an innocent man. I’m pretty sure that’s nowhere in the report.”
As the hearing wound down, Sen. Dan Patrick cautioned Bradley not to allow the external forces to overwhelm the duties of the commission.
“Don’t be bullied into letting this one case overshadow” what it needs to do,” Patrick said.
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