Wednesday, October 07, 2009

Forensic Science Commission canceling educational roundtables?

A Grits commenter points out that the Texas Forensic Science Commission's "Roundtable scheduled for Nov 6 in Austin has been canceled. Meeting materials have been deleted from the FSC site." A quick check of their site confirms that pages about upcoming roundtable events have been removed. I put in a call to the Commission's coordinator for more details but haven't heard back.

This news doesn't bode well! It's one thing to cancel an inquiry into a single controversial case, but these roundtables were designed to further the Commission's public education goals. In particular, they aimed to produce a more focused and nuanced public discussion about the new National Academy of Sciences report, which earlier this year critiqued an array of modern forensic methods. Perhaps defenders of the status quo believe that if no one publicly discusses the non-scientific basis for many modern forensics, the issue will just fade away.

Will new chairman Bradley not only derail the Willingham investigation but also stymie even the most modest, controlled public discussions of forensic errors and shortcomings? That's how it appears from the decision to cancel these roundtable discussions.

This would be particularly ironic because Mr. Bradley said one of the reasons he postponed Friday's hearing was that he wanted an opportunity to educate himself on the subjects covered by the Commission. That stated reason doesn't jibe with the decision to cancel the roundtable events, which were all about education. It leaves an impression that the new chair is less concerned with educating himself or others than with squelching debate about the causes and frequency of forensic errors.


Faceless Man said...


If there are still two spots on the commission to be filled, wouldn't it make sense to cancel these meetings until a full commission is staffed and then reschedule them?

Please don't take this question as a defense of this entire debacle, I'm just trying to look at it from both angles.

Can't say enough of the good work you do.

Jennifer Laurin said...

My understanding is that the organizers of the roundtables have canceled them at the present time in part to distance the dialog among stakeholders that they hope to have from the political controversy that the commission is now embroiled. The current word is that the organizers hope to reschedule for December. It would indeed be an enormous shame if this type of prospective education and reform work was derailed over political concerns over the commission's retrospective investigations.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

Faceless, I don't thinks so. These are public ed/input events and the commission needn't halt everything it's doing just so their new colleagues can go through - at most - perhaps 2-3 days of reading material. Besides, why doesn't Gov. Perry appoint the final two members, if his failure to do so is interfering with the Commission's work? I think it's because, for political reasons, he WANTS to interfere with the Commission's work. I appreciate your kind words, though.

Jennifer, if that was their purpose they've really botched their PR strategy. It makes it look like the Governor's new appointees are shutting down every single activity the FSC is engaged in. You could make an argument (though I don't personally buy it) about postponing the hearing (briefly) for the benefit of just-appointed newbies, but not for halting every single activity the FSC was engaged in before now.

Jennifer Laurin said...

I hear you, believe me I do. But Scott, do you have knowledge about whether the cancellation of the roundtables has actually come at the direction of the new members/commissioner? My understanding (again, maybe wrong) is that it was actually the old guard that independently wanted to postpone these events - perhaps in part because they have been hoping to obtain more involvement/cooperation/interest/trust among scientists (as opposed to lawyers), and there is a concern that the political feud will dampen that effort. I agree it might not have been politically savvy, but I'm not sure that (rightly or wrongly) was on the minds of the folks who were really putting energy into the roundtables. Scott, if your sense is that this is coming more directly from the new guard, I'd be very interested to know that.

Anonymous said...

I guess the chances are higher that it will snow in Austin in July than it is that you get one of the vacant spots on the commission, huh?

I bet you could show them a thing or two.

Like how not to have a job.

I think anyone appointed to this commission needs to have a real job.

Faceless Man said...

Hopefully this all gets cleared up before the primary. Perry is playing with fire and banking on not getting burned.

Thanks for the info Grits.

Gritsforbreakfast said...


I have no direct knowledge at all about who, exactly, pulled the trigger. I made that assumption because the other recent postponements came at the direction of the recently appointed chairman. Certainly if you have specific information to the contrary, that may be incorrect.

Still, besides the now-in-limbo Willingham and Moon investigations, those Roundtables were the main thing the FSC had going on. The outward appearance is that these new folks come in and it causes the entire FSC to grind to a complete halt. Indeed, whatever the backstory, that's really still true. Even if this decision was made by the old guard, it was in reaction to the political firestorm caused by the new appointments.

FWIW I seldom feel sorry for John Bradley, but I almost do this time. He brought it on himself, no doubt, for agreeing to be the Governor's hatchetman, but he's in a completely no-win situation. I guess he's taking one for the team.

To 3:24, yes, I lost my job with the Innocence Project of Texas this summer after a foundation backing a major grant of theirs went bankrupt because of the Madoff scandal. Me and millions of other Americans have been directly harmed by the economic downturn, but most people don't agree with you that that's some great character indictment. FWIW I've actually picked up a bit of consulting work here and there to tide me over. Thanks so much for your concern, though.

Karo said...

Check out this story about the forensic value of confirming the uniqueness of duct tape tears.

Maybe this can be Deputy Keith Pikett's new specialty.