Monday, July 30, 2012

State fire marshal pledges to assist in innocence review of old arson cases

Texas' new state fire marshal, Chris Connealy, told the Forensic Science Commission on Friday that he will use recommendations in the commission's report on the Todd Willingham arson investigation as a blueprint for reforming the agency, and even "go beyond" them. The former Houston and Cedar Park fire chief, who took the job about a month ago, embraced scientific advancements in the arson field that the agency heretofore strongly resisted. The fire marshal will update its training and standard operating procedures, he said, and create a new science advisory committee. Connealy also pledged to work with my employers at the Innocence Project of Texas (IPOT) to review arson convictions of current TDCJ inmates for potentially valid innocence claims based on flawed forensics.

I got to visit a bit with Mr. Connealy after the meeting and he seemed just as committed to confronting flawed arson forensics as his predecessor seemed committed to ducking the issue. Frankly it was a breath of fresh air.

Jeff Blackburn, chief legal counsel at IPOT (and my boss at my day job), updated the commissioners on the work that's gone into the arson review project so far. IPOT conducted reviews of 1,085 arson convictions, said Blackburn, and identified 25 or 26 which justify significant additional review. Blackburn said he expected a more thorough vetting would weed out more, and speculated that perhaps 10-15 arson cases may end up going forward seeking relief, though it's too early to say for sure, he emphasized. (N.b., Grits works with IPOT on the policy side and is not involved with the arson review or any legal work regarding innocence claims.)

The common denominator in the 25-26 cases, said Blackburn, was poor work by the defendants' (usually appointed) legal counsel who failed to adequately vet questionable testimony from arson investigators, either through cross-examination or their own expert witnesses. (For those interested, I've uploaded a document Blackburn presented to commissioners updating them on the process.)

Once IPOT has narrowed down the numbers as much as they can through their own research, they and the state fire marshal will convene mutually agreed upon experts to evaluate potentially flawed testimony from arson investigators. At that point, where experts believe flawed testimony led to false convictions, the question becomes whether it's possible to secure relief from the Court of Criminal Appeals through writs of habeas corpus, or if the court's majority will continue to block innocence claims based on invalid science.


Anonymous said...

Guess nobody cares much about this topic on way or the other.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

Maybe, but that's a strange thing about comments: The impact of a blog post, I find, often stands in inverse proportion to the number of comments it receives, and the importance of what's said in a comment string usually stands in inverse proportion to its length, as evidenced on lots of the juvie strings. People comment about things they have pre-formed opinions on, and like many topics Grits covers, this one is pretty deep in the weeds and outside most folks' experience.

Elizabeth said...

Thanks for speaking with the new state fire marshal and for giving us an update on this rare-but-necessary look in the mirror by law enforcement.

As debunkings go, the one putting the lie to arson folklore has been huge. Kudos to Jeff Blackburn for maintaining pressure on authorities to re-examine past arson cases tainted by junk science. Such a review is the right thing to do, the only thing to do.

Considering the energetic resistance from local fire officials in the Todd Willingham case, it will be interesting to see how other investigators react when their cases are exhumed, held up to the light and found wanting.

I hope Gov. Goodhair exercises enough self-control going forward to avoid dissing modern scientific methods, as he did when the Willingham review pointed to the near-certainty that Perry had arrogantly refused to spare the life of a man who was then executed for a crime that never took place.