Monday, April 26, 2010

Willingham case stalled in seemingly stacked panel at forensic commission

Two stories on the Forensic Science Commission capture the essence of of last week's meeting:
Between them they make most of the points which have been rumbling around my head since on the subject.

Most importantly: If there was any question before now, FSC Chairman John Bradley will succeed in delaying any final resolution (and my guess is, even public consideration) of the Todd Willingham case until after the November election. They spent much of their time last week discussing lab backlog issues that aren't even under the commission's purview.

Bradley tried to limit membership on the panel investigating the Willingham case to Gov. Perry's three new appointees, adding to my fear that he's put the Willingham investigation in a stacked committee. At least the other two new commissioners had the decency to feel a sense of embarrassment at the crassness of this blatant hijacking and insisted that Dr. Sarah Kerrigan also be included. Describing these machinations, Casey wrote that Mr. Bradley had:
named Tarrant County Chief Medical Examiner Dr. Nizam Peerwani to both three-member panels, making some commission members wonder if Bradley sees Peerwani as an ally.

One intriguing byplay at Friday's meeting suggested that if Peerwani is a Bradley ally, he's not totally in his pocket.

Hint of tension

Bradley had named Kerrigan, one of those most vocally resistant to his proposed policies, as a member of the Willingham committee.

But Bradley announced that she had asked to be replaced “for personal reasons,” a common euphemism. He also indicated that she thought the committee ought to be bigger and include the commission's only defense attorney to balance DA Bradley, a hint at the tension between the two.

Bradley named Fort Worth defense attorney Lance Evans to replace Kerrigan, but Evans noted that this resulted in a committee made up entirely of new appointees. He suggested that a member who had been part of the investigation from the beginning should be added or they could “perhaps meet as a committee of the whole (commission).”

Persistence pays

Bradley resisted, saying the committee could invite another member to attend a meeting. But Peerwani said he thought Kerrigan should be added as a member. Bradley once again said she could be invited, but Peerwani persisted and won.

It was a small victory — the notion that the committee investigating the forensic science that helped lead to a man's execution should include as many scientists as lawyers — but I'm afraid these days we have to celebrate even the small victories.

The question: Are small victories meaningful or is the outcome already predetermined? Casey suggests we're at the beginning of what "promises to be a protracted fight over whether the [Forensic Science Commission] will become a national model of how to improve the use of science in fighting crime, or just another secretive, bureaucratic body perceived as protecting licensed professionals rather than policing them." But I don't see a "protracted fight." Nobody presently on the commission is pushing to make it a "national model." At best some on the commission are resisting, but under its new chairman's leadership the agency has already become a "secretive, bureaucratic body perceived as protecting licensed professionals rather than policing them." There's no need to speculate: We're there now.


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