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Does John Bradley Get It?

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I’ve been pulled away from the blog this week to finish a feature story about the recent controversy over arson convictions. (The story will be out in two weeks.)

But I wanted to highlight Rick Casey’s excellent column in today’s Houston Chronicle about the spat between John Bradley and Sam Bassett over the Forensic Science Commission.

Bassett was, until recently, head of the commission. Gov. Rick Perry replaced him with Bradley, the hard-line Williamson County prosecutor who appears to be slow-walking the commission’s investigation into the controversial execution of Cameron Todd Willingham. (Willingham, of course, may well have been innocent.)

The two have been sniping at each other since Bradley appeared before a legislative committee earlier this week and criticized the commission’s approach under Bassett.

Casey nails exactly what’s at issue here:

Bradley is speaking like a prosecutor. He assumes that the commission’s job is to decide whether the fire marshals, laboratory technicians, fingerprint experts and others engaged in solving crimes were negligent or incompetent…..

Here’s the most important thing. The prosecutorial culture wants to know, beyond a reasonable doubt, whether the people involved did something wrong.

The scientific culture wants to know, beyond a reasonable doubt, whether everything was done right. That’s why findings are published, peer-reviewed, and subject to never-ending scrutiny.

The Commission actually voted not to attempt to define the terms “professional negligence” and “misconduct” at its February 2008 meeting in Dallas. The minutes show agreement that it was “unnecessary since we have no rule making and/or enforcement authority under the present statutory structure.”

In other words, their job as scientists wasn’t to sanction the investigators, but to judge the quality of the science. That is the way scientists learn how to do things better.

The sole purpose of the findings, however embarrassing for the investigators, would be to improve future practices.

That’s right on. As I’ve written before, Willingham is gone. His case is irrevocably closed. But we can use the lessons from Willingham’s case to help innocent people still in prison on bogus arson convictions and to help prevent future wrongful convictions.

Bradley seems in no rush, though.

Even under the commission’s original timeline for the Willingham investigation, a final report wouldn’t have been ready until winter or spring of 2010 — six years after the execution and four years after the commission first received a request to examine the case. 

With Bradley in charge, it could be a year (or several years) before we see conclusions on the Willingham case.

And only the Legislature seems positioned to speed up that timeline.

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.