Bradley Puts On a Show in Senate Committee

Controversial chair of Forensic Science Commission spars with senators in confirmation hearing


Dave Mann

Updated below

John Bradley doesn’t take crap from anyone.

When he’s lording over meetings of the Forensic Science Commission, the man is prickly even during his lighter moments (at other times he can be downright rude.) At legislative hearings, Bradley talks back to state senators like no one I’ve ever seen. If he wasn’t district attorney of Williamson County and chair of the Forensic Science Commission, Bradley would make one hell of a cut-throat divorce lawyer.

Bradley came before the Senate Nominations Committee this morning for a confirmation hearing. Most gubernatorial appointees—even the most controversial ones—typically soft-talk their way through Senate confirmation to their posts. Bradley was having none of that. He came ready to defend his controversial 18-month tenure as chair of the Forensic Science Commission. And the press was eager for the show—half the sparse audience consisted of reporters.

Houston Democratic Sen. Rodney Ellis—who might be described as Bradley’s legislative nemesis—was there to ask the DA some pointed questions.

The case against Bradley is a long one. I reviewed some of the controversy in my post on Friday. He mainly has delayed the commission’s investigation into the flawed arson evidence in the Cameron Todd Willingham case. (Grits recounted the many criticisms in more detail. And the Houston Chronicle articulated the argument against Bradley in an editorial today calling for senators to deny him confirmation.)

Ellis hammered Bradley for telling a reporter that Willingham was a “guilty monster.” How, Ellis wanted to know, could Bradley make such a statement when the prosecutor was chairing an investigation into Willingham’s case?

Bradley shot back with a list of the courts that had found Willingham guilty. “I didn’t find it a particularly shocking notion that he was guilty,” Bradley said. Rather, he was trying to counter the statements put out by a advocacy group in New York (read: the Innocence Project) that argued Willingham might be innocent.

When Ellis pressed, wondering whether such statements compromised Bradley’s ability to conduct a fair investigation, the ornery prosecutor went on the attack. He pointed out that Ellis serves as chair of the Innocence Project’s board. “I think that is a conflict of interest,” he said. And Bradley implied that Ellis held preconceived opinions that Willingham is innocence.

Ellis shot back: And you have no preconceived opinions? “After all,” Ellis said, “you are John Bradley—God’s gift to us.”

At this point, Sen. Bob Deuell—the Republican chair of the Nominations Committee—interjected and asked both men to be more civil. Both did tone it down.

After Bradley finished dueling with Ellis, reporters rushed into the hall to hear Bradley stonewall their questions. While they were out of the hearing room, they missed the testimony of Anthony Robinson, who spent 13 years in prison for a crime he didn’t commit. Since his exoneration in 2000, Robinson has earned a law degree and said he currently works on immigration cases. Robinson pleaded with the committee to make the Forensic Science Commission follow its mandate—to learn from the flaws and past mistakes with forensic evidence, and ensure they don’t happen again.

That is the real import of today’s hearing. In the end, the Nominations Committee approved Bradley on a 4-2 vote. He now goes before the full Senate, where he’s likely to be confirmed as well. (The Senate has rejected only one of Gov. Perry’s nominees in recent years.)

So today’s hearing provided excellent political theater. But that’s all it was.

The lingering—and most important—question is whether the Forensic Science Commission will pick up its pace. It’s handled just three cases since 2007. There are many more instances of flawed forensics in this state to be investigated—especially among arson cases. It may fall to the other eight members to force the commission to tackle more cases. It doesn’t appear Bradley has the appetite for unearthing forensic misconduct. And he damn sure won’t be bullied into doing it.

Update: A reader pointed out that nominees require a two-thirds vote in the Senate to win confirmation. That means Bradley will have to gain support from 21 senators (all 19 Republicans and two Democrats) when his nomination reaches the floor. I still would be surprised if he wasn’t confirmed. As I mentioned above, the Senate almost never rejects an appointee, no matter how controversial (the famous exception being SBOE Chair Don McLeroy). But Bradley’s confirmation isn’t assured.