Tuesday, May 04, 2010

Defense lawyers: Forensic commission committee meetings should be open

The criminal defense bar wants to pick a fight with Forensic Science Commission Chairman John Bradley over his new committee system conducting the commission's business in secret, reports the Houston Chronicle ("Defense lawyers rip Texas forensic panel," May 4). The story opens:

Texas defense lawyers took aim at the state's Forensic Science Commission Monday, charging that the group — now probing the possibly botched arson investigations that sent an East Texas man to his execution — is in danger of being “permanently tainted and derailed by politics.”

In a statement issued by Texas Criminal Defense Lawyer's Association president Stanley Schneider, the lawyers targeted commission Chairman John Bradley, saying he has “overstepped his authority, ignored the will of the Legislature and is trying to hide the commission's work from public scrutiny.”

Willingham arson case

Monday's statement marked the first time the lawyer's group has become involved in controversy surrounding the commission, which is reviewing arson investigations in a 1991 Corsicana house fire that killed three children. The youngsters' father, Cameron Willingham, was executed for their deaths in 2004.

Schneider, a Houston lawyer, said a Bradley-devised system of subcommittees designed to collect investigation evidence, accept citizen complaints and handle other matters “very likely” violates the Texas Open Meetings Act.

Bottom line, under the governing court rulings interpreting the Open Meetings Act, committee cannot meet in secret if the commission has delegated key decision making functions. TCDLA argues that it has done so; Bradley says the full commission will make the final call. I'm not a lawyer, but from my own reading of the statute, the FSC rules (pdf) and the AG's Open Meetings handbook (pdf, p. 14), IMO it's arguably true that the closed committee meetings are illegal; certainly they are unwise, and not particularly ethical - it gives the appearance, whatever the reality, that Mr. Bradley and the commission have something to hide.

In the case that set the existing legal standard, a city council had developed a track record over time of delegating decisions to a particular committee that were seldom reversed. The key question is whether the commission has "granted it authority to supervise or control public business or public policy." Of the committees created, certainly it's hard to argue that the "Complaint Screening Committee" doesn't control public policy - their recommendations were rubber stamped at the last FSC meeting and they control the commission's intake. Similarly, according to the FSC rules, the Investigation Panels on individual cases "shall coordinate an investigation into a complaint approved by the FSC for investigation," which is definitely controlling a key function of the commission. The "Forensic Development Committee," by contrast, under the rules appears to fall more under the model of making recommendations that would allow them to keep the meetings closed.

Only a court could say for sure, but perhaps TCDLA will take things to the next level and sue under the Open Meetings Act. It'd be good to resolve this question once and for all.



Anonymous said...

When Texas lawyers are licensed, they take an oath to "honestly demean themselves to the practice of law." District attorneys are bound by the Texas Code of Criminal Procedure 2.01 to "see that justice is done...not suppress facts or secrete witnesses capable of establishing the innocence of the accused." Finally, all lawyers are bound by the Texas Rules of Disciplinary Conduct, which states in its preamble that a lawyers should "seek improvement of the law, the administration of justice and the quality of service rendered by the legal profession..." It has a core belief in avoiding loss of respect with the public and a desire for the highest possible degree of ethical conduct.

John Bradley forgot the oath he took and the concepts meant to regulate his profession. He is more interested in preventing "his side" from looking bad, i.e. having made a mistake, than he is ensuring the public trust, faith in the system, and integrity of prosecution. John Bradley is a disgrace who should be suspended from the practice of law. I hope voters remember this and remove him from the post they trusted him with.

In the interim, if Mr. Bradley refuses to complete the duties the commission require, refuses to subject himself to the oversight of the Texas Legislature, and will not address public concerns, it is time that the people get more involved. It is time that the people of this state suggest to Governor Perry that he has appointed a man incompetent to retain his position. It is time that we all demand accountability for this man.

Anonymous said...

It is time for Bradley's unethical practices in Williamson County to be exposed. This should put to rest any doubt as to who Bradley is. I hope the individuals on the inside who have the goods will have the guts to help rid WilCo and Texas Government of John Bradley once and far all.

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