whether the State Fire Marshal's Office has a responsibility to notify law enforcement officials, district attorneys, judges and the governor when it discovers that people have been (and are being) convicted on faulty science.The exchange between Bradley and Eisenberg shows there's a big difference between what's "legal" and what's right or just. False convictions are by definition "legal" until they're overturned by the appellate courts. What's more, the legal system historically values "finality" over correcting old mistakes, so it's perfectly "legal" to ignore junk science used to secure past convictions, as Bradley wants the commission to do, even if it's a profligate and shameful stance. I'm glad at least the scientists on the commission seem to understand that the administration of justice requires analyzing not just society's legal obligations but its moral ones. Bradley's pedantic search for technicalities to justify ignoring injustices promotes disrespect for the law and the legal system.
Hundreds of Texans sit in prison for arson, possibly based on science discredited in the 1990s. Bradley had ignored the issue, but the scientists insist on raising it with the Fire Marshal's Office.
The tension between scientists and the prosecutor was captured in an exchange I was told of between Bradley and Commissioner Arthur Eisenberg, the highly regarded professor of pathology and anatomy and director the DNA Identity Laboratory at the University of North Texas Health Science Center. It went something like this:
Eisenberg, echoing what all the scientists present said was a responsibility to correct errors, said his office investigated all alleged errors and disseminated corrections when appropriate.
Under what law, Bradley demanded.
I don't need a law, said Eisenberg.
The commission is, as it should be, focusing on what is right, not just legal. But Bradley clearly sees it as his job to defend all criminal convictions.
That is understandable, if not always appropriate, for a DA. But it's totally inappropriate for the chairman of the Forensic Science Commission.
Monday, October 04, 2010
Scientists school forensic commission chair on difference between 'legal' and 'right'
Continuing with our theme of Flawed Forensic Science Week, check out this notable article from Houston Chronicle columnist Rick Casey regarding Texas' Forensic Science Commission, observing that scientists among the group have rebelled against Chairman John Bradley "in a showdown between science and politics" concerning old arson cases - a conflict in which science, for once, "won a resounding victory." Casey was particularly gratified, as is your correspondent, that scientists on the commission are insisting on addressing the question of: