Senators Look to Reform Forensic Science Commission

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The scandals over flawed forensic science in Texas seem unending. With the exception of DNA evidence, nearly every field of forensic science used to imprison people for decades—or even send them to death row—has endured scandal.

First there were the botched crime lab results. Then we learned of problems with ballistics and bloodspatter evidence. Rape kits went untested. Accidental fires were misread as arsons. And, perhaps most amazingly, dogs were allowed to not only identify suspects in clumsily arranged scent lineups, but also to “testify” against people in court.

The Texas Forensic Science Commission was created in 2005 to help address these problems. But in recent years, the nine-member commission has become politicized, largely because of its controversial investigation into the flawed arson evidence in the Cameron Todd Willingham case. The commission has become embroiled in debates over the death penalty, gubernatorial politics, wrongful convictions, open government and even its own legal authority to investigate certain cases.

The Senate Criminal Justice committee today heard a bill intended to reform the commission and refocus the panel on its original mission—improving forensic science.

Senate Bill 1658 by Sen. Juan “Chuy” Hinojosa would greatly expand the commission’s authority to investigate botched forensic evidence. The bill makes clear that the commission could investigate allegations of wrongdoing in any field of forensic science. (Some critics of the commission have argued that current law allows the commission to oversee only accredited crime labs. The commission is waiting for the Texas Attorney General to issue an opinion on these jurisdiction issues. The bill would clarify that dispute.)

The bill would also allow the commissioners to launch an inquiry on their own. As it stands now, the commission can investigate a case only if someone has filed a complaint. The provision, which would greatly expand the commission’s authority, drew criticism from Sen. Joan Huffman, a Houston Republican, at today’s hearing. She said she might oppose the bill if that provision remained. Hinojosa said he’d try to convince her over the next few days why the commission needed such power. “Good luck,” quipped Sen. John Whitmire.

Huffman wasn’t the only senator who had concerns. Houston Democrat Rodney Ellis questioned Hinojosa extensively. Ellis was suspicious of a provision that folds the commission into the Department of Public Safety. The governor’s office has tried in past sessions to house the commission within DPS—an idea Ellis and other supporters of the commission have successfully resisted. They want to maintain the commission’s independence, especially to investigate DPS crime labs.

Hinojosa assured Ellis that DPS would provide only administrative support for the commission and wouldn’t have any influence over which cases the commissioners look into—to “avoid a conflict of interest.”

Ellis was also concerned that the bill would exempt some documents from the Open Records Act. Hinojosa said the commission would still meet in public, but “what they’re trying to protect is their work product.”

“So they’d have a public meeting but whatever [documents] they’re looking at would be kept secret?” Ellis asked.

Hinojosa said documents used in public meetings would be released, but most documents would be kept from the public until after the investigation is completed.

Despite Ellis’ concerns, the Innocence Project of Texas supports the bill. Scott Henson—who testified on behalf of the group—said the bill may not be perfect, and that he has concerns about folding the commission into DPS. But he said the legislation would greatly improve the commission’s ability to unearth injustices caused by faulty forensic science.

The committee left the bill pending, but could send it to the full Senate later this week.

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.