The Willingham Hearing

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The small hearing room in the Capitol basement was packed this morning to see the Senate Committee on Criminal Justice take on the infamous Cameron Todd Willingham case.

Judging from the crowd, the hearing promised excellent political theater. Kinky Friedman was there (accompanied, as always, by sidekick Little Jewford), so was Innocence Project co-founder Barry Scheck, a number of Texas House members, Cory Session (the brother of the late Tim Cole), and, if I’m not mistaken, just about every reporter and blogger in town.

They had all come to hear the senators grill John Bradley, the prosecutor who Gov. Rick Perry appointed to lead the Forensic Science Commission. Critics have accused Perry of installing Bradley to stall or undermine the commission’s investigation of Willingham, a likely innocent man executed in 2004 for murder by arson. Many forensic experts now believe the fire was accidental, not arson, and that Willingham was convicted by flawed forensics. (Background on Forensic Science Commission controversy here; and more on Willingham’s case here.)

Once the hearing began, however, there were few theatrics. In fact, the Willingham case was mentioned only in passing (save for one speech by Sen. Dan Patrick).

Senators threw a few politically tinged questions at Bradley, who responded with combative answers, but the hearing largely focused on the most important aspect of this controversy: the forensic science of arson and how many innocent Texans may have been convicted by junk arson science.

No one really knows how many innocent people may be sitting in Texas prisons on faulty arson convictions. I’ve been writing a series on the topic this year, and have unearthed three cases of apparently wrongful arson convictions (Curtis Severns, Ed Graf, and Alfredo Guardiola).

Bradley, the hard-line Williamson County prosecutor, opened the hearing by outlining his vision for the Forensic Science Commission in the future. He wants to write rules and definitions for the commission and create more structure. He wants to work with the Office of Court Administration to come up with definitions for the commission.

He steadfastly refused to comment — in both the hearing and a gathering with reporters afterward — on the Willingham case or when the commission would finish the stalled investigation. He did say the commission would meet again in January. That was perhaps the biggest nugget of news to emerge from the morning’s events.

(In a press conference after the hearing, Scheck and Sen. Rodney Ellis suggested that some of Bradley’s ideas amounted to stall tactics. “How long can it really take to get a definition of ‘negligence’ from the Office of Court Administration?” Scheck said. “We hope Chairman Bradley moves forward in a timely way….There are potentially people in prison who shouldn’t be there based on this kind of unreliable forensic science.”)

Indeed, that’s the real issue here. During the hearing, Ellis pointed out that more than 740 Texans are serving prison sentences for arson. In that sense, the work for the Forensic Science Commission is much larger than Willingham.

“We want to make sure we got it right,” Ellis said. He then suggested that there was the appearance of politically motivated delays in the Willingham investigation.

Bradley shot back by questioning Ellis’ role on the board of the Innocence Project, which brought the Willingham case to the commission. “I have to wonder if you’re here on behalf of the New York nonprofit who filed the complaint,” he said. Later, Rep. Tommy Merritt asked if Bradley had similar credibility concerns about other lawmakers on the dais, and Bradley quickly cut him down. “I don’t even know your name,” he said.

But the discussion kept coming back to fire science.

I’ve been writing for months that the focus of the Willingham investigation should be on the arson forensics. The prospect that Texas might admit executing an innocent man is alluring. But the real value of the Willingham case will be drawing attention to the kind of disproved arson evidence that has sent dozens — perhaps hundreds — of innocent people to prison.

As Sen. Juan “Chuy” Hinojosa put it to Bradley late in the hearing, “Just focus on the arson techniques that were used.”