CAPITOL OF r; ENSE The Price of Innocence BY DAVE MANN Cameron Todd Willingham professed his innocence to the very end. Belted to a gurney moments before the potassium chloride pumped into his veins and stopped his heart, Willingham told those gathered to witness his February 2004 execution, “The only statement I want to make is that I’m an innocent manconvicted of a crime I did not commit.” Willingham had been sentenced to death for starting a 1991 house fire that killed his three daughters in the North Texas town of Corsicana. From the beginning, he had maintained that the fire was accidental. He was convicted mainly on the testimony of a single arson investigator, whose forensic evidence has since been debunked. In Willingham, the state of Texas may well have executed an innocent man. His execution is exactly the kind of case the Texas Forensic Science Commission is supposed to investigate. The Legislature created the nine-member commissionmade up of prosecutors, defense attorneys, forensic science experts, and legal analystsin 2005 to oversee and investigate the state’s troubled forensic crime labs. In the past five years, the Houston police crime lab and several Department of Public Safety labs have produced well-documented failures: tainted and lost evidence, poorly conducted tests, intentionally misleading testimony. The New York City-based Innocence Project, a major proponent of the commission, has uncovered seven cases in which Texas sent innocent men to prison because of faulty forensic evidence. Some have been set free; others, like Willingham, are already dead. Given the many crime lab controversies, Texas legislators saw a need in 2005 for a concept that few states have triedan independent body that could investigate allegations of misconduct against crime labs and correct poor forensic practices. The bill that created the Forensic Science Commissionsponsored by Sen. Juan “Chuy” Hinojosa, a McAllen Democrat, and Rep. Joe Driver, a Republican from Garlandpassed the state House and Senate unanimously. Supporters hoped the commission would free innocent men already in jail and prevent similar injustices in the future. “The public has to have trust in the criminal justice system, that we’re convicting the right people,” says Hinojosa. “A lot of the labs have been very sloppy and very negligent. The credibility of the system is at stake.” For nearly two years, however, Texas’ highest elected officials have stalled the commission’s work. It took Gov. Rick Perry and Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst more than 10 months to appoint their seven commissioners. In the year since, the commission has done no work for a simple reason: It has no money. Both Perry and the legislative leadership have refused to provide the commission the small amount of funding it needs for regular meetings and investigations. The nine commissioners hope the current Legislature will provide a budget. Nearly two years after it was created and three years since Willingham’s death, the commissionlike the possibly innocent people still in jailsits and waits. he commission missed out on funding from the Legislature in 2005 because the bill authorizing the commission passed too late in the session to be included in the two-year state budget. The commission did receive a bit of money from the Texas Legislative Council to convene two meetings in fall 2006. With the Legislature out of session, the Legislative Budget Boardheaded by Dewhurst and House Speaker Tom Craddick has authority to make minor appropriations. But the board hasn’t funded the commission. In addition, Perry could have directed minor administrative funding to the commissioners, but hasn’t done so. Some commission supporters privately speculate that Perry, who faced three opponents in November’s election, wasn’t eager to preside over the first government body in the nation to confirm the modern execution of an innocent manperhaps even someone executed during his time in office. States have freed numerous wrongly convicted people from death row in recent years, and several media and anti-death penalty groups have uncovered strong evidence that Texas and other states have executed the innocent. But no American governmental body has yet reached that conclusion. The forensic commission may well become the first. Perry spokesman Ted Royer says the governor supports the commission, but believes that the Legislature is the appropriate entity to provide funding. “The governor certainly wants to see the commission get the funding it needs,” Royer says. “That will very likely be addressed this legislative session:’ Hinojosa says he doesn’t think election politics stalled the commission so much as resistance within the criminal justice system. “When you bring change to a system, it makes people uncomfortable,” he says. Perhaps no criminal justice system has produced more crime lab horror stories than that of Texas. Attorney Barry Sheck of the Innocence Project has called it a “legacy of misconduct and neglect.” “The need for this is obvious,” Sheck says. “To me, it’s obvious that if you want to protect the innocent and apprehend the guilty, few things in the criminal justice system are more important than crime labs that produce reliable work. 12 THE TEXAS OBSERVER JANUARY 26, 2007
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