[Chris Conneally] has taught me a lot about what is good in Texas law enforcement.
He stepped into the post in the summer of 2012. At that time, Texas was being widely criticized for executing Cameron Todd Willingham. Willingham’s murder conviction had been based on a shoddy arson investigation that was eventually discredited by the Texas Forensic Science Commission.
Our previous fire marshal chose to defend that investigation and do nothing to change his agency’s practices. When Connealy, a 36-year firefighter, took over the job, he took over an agency that was seen as a national joke. Within a few weeks, Connealy started turning everything around. He met with Jeff Blackburn, chief counsel of the Innocence Project of Texas, and the two formed an alliance that had never been attempted in any other state. Together, they launched a partnership that eventually resulted in a review of more than 1,000 arson convictions and the investigations that supported them.
That process led to the creation of something else that had never been done before — a scientific advisory panel made up of some of the nation’s leading experts in fire science.
So far, that panel has completed five painstaking reviews. In three of them, arson investigators were found to have relied on flawed science; in two others the original work was found to have been done properly.
What Connealy has done with the Innocence Project is unprecedented. Blackburn says it is transforming the relationship between science and the law. As Dr. John DeHaan, one of the most prominent fire scientists in the world and a member of the advisory panel, put it recently, Connealy’s efforts are turning Texas into a model for the entire country.
Connealy has done even more than that for Texas, however. He has revolutionized his agency’s training program. His goal is to make Texas fire investigators the best trained in the country.
He has energized his agency from top to bottom. Either he or his top investigators have been among the first to respond to deadly fires and explosions all over the state. Many of us have seen media coverage of him on the scene at places like West, working hard to put the facts together and determine what happened.
In the space of a little over a year, he has made his agency into what it should have been all along — a dynamic force of dedicated men and women seeking the truth and keeping the rest of Texas safe.
All of us want Texas to be the best at everything. To me, that includes being the best at achieving true justice for every citizen. With Texans like Fire Marshal Connealy running our system, we will get there. He deserves to be recognized for his efforts.