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AUSTIN— The Texas attorney general severely limited the state's Forensic Science Commission's ability to investigate past cases Friday, including an examination of evidence used in disputed death penalty case.
Attorney General Greg Abbott ruled that the commission can only look at evidence analyzed, or introduced at trial, after the commission was established on Sept. 1, 2005. Lawmakers created the commission to ensure that scientifically-sound forensic methods are used in Texas, after several high-profile cases were thrown out due to unsound practices.
One of the first cases the Forensic Science Commission took up was a murder investigation that ended with the execution of Cameron Todd Willingham. Arson experts hired by the commission determined that the evidence used to gain Willingham's conviction did not meet scientific standards. But before the commission could rule on the case, Gov. Rick Perry fired the commission's chairman, and new chairman John Bradley asked for an attorney general's ruling on the limits of the commission's authority.
The Texas Senate failed to confirm Bradley as chairman of the eight-member panel, which is made up of prosecutors, defense attorneys and forensic scientists.
Perry was governor when Willingham was executed in 2004, and his attorneys had sent letters to the governor's office arguing that the evidence from the 1991 fire needed to be reviewed using the latest scientific methods.
"Although the Forensic Science Commission may conduct investigations of incidents that occurred before September 1, 2005, the law that created the Commission prohibits the (it) from considering evidence that was tested or offered into evidence prior to that date," Abbott wrote.
Friday's ruling effectively stops the commission's review of the evidence used in the Willingham trial. In Texas, attorney general opinion letters have the authority of deciding issues that would be considered by supreme courts in other states.
Basing his decision on how the law creating the commission was drafted, Abbott ruled that the commission can investigate older cases but can't determine the validity of the evidence used in them. Abbott also limited the laboratories the commission could investigate to those accredited by the Department of Public Safety.
The ruling is a major setback for groups such as the Innocence Project, which brought the original complaint about the Willingham conviction to the commission. The groups had hoped the commission could reopen old cases where convictions were obtained using what is now considered unreliable forensic techniques.
While the commission cannot overturn a conviction, it can determine whether evidence was collected and analyzed properly, supplying grounds for an appeal.
Despite losing the authority to determine the validity of the evidence in the Willingham case, the commission has recommended establishing a code of ethics for investigators and establishing procedures for involving the state fire marshal's office in fatal home fires. The commission acknowledged the Texas Legislature controls the money needed to implement a number of its recommendations.