John Bradley’s Last Stand

Forensic Science Commission meets today to finalize Willingham-arson inquiry
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Updated below

The Texas Forensic Science Commission will convene this afternoon for a two-day meeting in Austin. It will mark not only the likely end of John Bradley’s controversial chairmanship, but also the conclusion of the commission’s long-running investigation into the Cameron Todd Willingham-arson case.

The nine commission members will meet today beginning at 1 p.m. at the Central Services Building—a squat state office building—in downtown Austin and gather again tomorrow at 9:30 a.m.

The commissioners are slated to begin discussing the Willingham investigation either late today or early tomorrow (you can find the agenda here). I hear they will devote most of Friday to finalizing their conclusions about the arson evidence in the Willingham case. (Willingham was convicted and executed for starting the house fire that killed his children. The evidence against him has since been debunked.) I’m told the commissioners will begin with a draft report on Willingham and go through their findings in detail. While the commission may not release a final report at this meeting, we will find out during the next two days what the final report is likely to say.

It also will likely be Bradley’s final meeting as chair.  Bradley must be confirmed by the Texas Senate before the end of the Legislative session in June to retain his position. That seems unlikely. His nomination has stalled, and unless several senators change their minds in the next few weeks, this meeting will be Bradley’s last.

It seems appropriate that Bradley’s tenure may be ending just as the commission is concluding the Willingham investigation. Many observers believe that Gov. Rick Perry installed Bradley on the commission in fall 2009 to slow-walk the Willingham inquiry until after the 2010 elections. If that was the case, then Bradley has been widely successful.  He has fought progress on the investigation at nearly every meeting.  

And his work isn’t finished. He will likely push to tone down the commission’s Willingham conclusions in the next two days.

The one thing we do know is that the commission won’t offer an opinion on Willingham’s guilt or innocence. That was never its mission. And as I’ve written before, we may never know for sure whether he was guilty or innocent.

Rather the investigation has always centered on the physical evidence of arson—or in this case—the lack thereof. The lingering question is how far the commission will go in its final report.  Will it call for a statewide investigation into past arson cases (as some commissioners have suggested) or recommend the State Fire Marshal review all its past cases for similar errors?

Will the Fire Marshal’s office finally acknowledge that its Willingham investigation was flawed and that other cases may have been too? The Fire Marshal’s office has stood behind its Willingham investigation—despite nine national experts concluding the evidence was flawed—which makes you wonder how many similarly faulty arson cases are out there.

As I’ve written before, there are potentially hundreds of innocent people still in Texas prisons on arson convictions. I uncovered three of them during an investigative series in 2009.

The number of flawed arson cases represents a gross injustice. In the next two days, we’ll begin to find out if the commissioners will help correct it.

Update: The commission spent three hours on Thursday working to finalize its report in the Willingham case. Commissioners started with a draft report and have been going through it section  by section, changing language as they go. They will reconvene at 9:30 a.m. on Friday to finish marking up the report. There are 15 recommendations in the draft report—most aimed at improving training and education for fire investigators (reforms that are badly needed). The contents of the report figure to change significantly when the commission continues its work on Friday morning. I’ll post on the finalized recommendations on Friday afternoon.

Dave Mann has been with the Observer since 2003. Before that, he worked as a reporter in Fort Worth and Washington, D.C. He was born and raised in Philadelphia. He thinks border collies are the world’s greatest dogs, and believes in the nourishing powers of pickup basketball.