Update from Forensic Science Meeting

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Updated at 2:13 p.m.: A room full of reporters and activists waited most of the day to hear the Texas Forensic Science Commission at long last discuss the infamous Cameron Todd Willingham case.  

When the case finally came up, the result was anti-climactic.

The commission members agreed that they would keep investigating the Willingham case and that they needed more information. The commission has assigned four of its members to examine the flawed forensic evidence used to convict Willingham of starting the 1991 house fire that killed his three children. Willingham was executed in 2004.

In December 2008, the commission hired an outside expert to examine the Willingham case. That expert, Dr. Craig Beyler, delivered his report in August 2009 in which he concluded the fire science in the case was outdated and discredited. That’s when Gov. Rick Perry intervened, replacing three commissioners and the putting the investigation on hold.

But the commission—even under its previous chair—had always intended to obtain testimony and input from other experts, including the prosecutors and local fire marshal’s office that worked on the Willingham case.

“We’ve only just begun this investigation,” said commission member Sarah Kerrigan. She said there was a misunderstanding by the public that Beyler’s report was the final report of the commission. That’s not the case, she said. The commission still must solicit input from other experts. Kerrigan wants the four-person Willingham panel to meet with a number of experts in the case, including Beyler. That meeting may well happen behind closed doors.

Chair John Bradley pointed out that the commission hadn’t even obtained a full transcript of Willingham’s trial yet.  Nizam Peerwani, the Fort Worth medical examiner, said he wanted to see the video made of the fire scene at Willingham’s house.

In the end, the commission committed to keep investigating, which itself is progress. But it remained unclear what the next step will be, how long it will take, and whether the commission will ever hear testimony from Beyler, whose scheduled appearance was canceled in September when Gov. Perry shook up the commission.

The Willingham inquiry will continue. The details, though, remain a mystery. And nothing happened at today’s meeting to disprove the cynics out there who suspect that the investigation will drag on until after the November governor’s election,

 

Posted previously:

I’m at the Texas Forensic Science Commission meeting in Irving. The small meeting room at the ostentatious Omni Mandalay hotel—which boasts a water fountain in the lobby and where rooms run $180 a night—is packed with reporters and activists. As with the last meeting in January, the commission has gathered in a tiny conference room with only a handful of chairs.

People have turned out, of course, because the commission is expected to discuss the disputed Cameron Todd Willingham case for the first time in nearly seven months. There is one person in the room with a large yellow sign about Willingham that reads, in part, “No arson, no crime.” (The commission is also expected to take public testimony later today.)

The meeting began with an apparent effort by Chair John Bradley to alter the makeup of the commission’s three-person panel investigating the Willingham case.  

Commission member Sarah Kerrigan offered to step down from the Willingham panel. That was an interesting development because Kerrigan was the only member of the panel not appointed recently by Gov. Rick Perry. (In a controversial move, Perry named the other two members—John Bradley and Dr. Nizam Peerwani —to the commission in late September.)

Bradley immediately appointed defense attorney Lance Evans, another recent Perry appointee, to the Willingham panel. Bradley said he wanted a lawyer like Evans on the Willingham panel in place of Kerrigan, a forensic scientist with Sam Houston State University, because there are “a lot of legal issues in that particular investigation.” That’s a questionable assertion. The goal of the Willingham inquiry was originally to examine the fire science in the case.

But other commissioners, including Peerwani, objected to the move, and the commission eventually voted for Kerrigan and Evans to both serve on an expanded four-person Willingham panel.

The commission is now discussing the backlog of forensic cases at crime labs, which is a major problem.

I’ll post another update after the commission discusses the Willingham case.

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.