Friday, October 09, 2009

How best to vet old arson innocence claims?

I've not been giving credit frequently enough to Dave Mann over at the Texas Observer for the excellent work he's been doing lately exposing flawed arson cases. In particular, he's identified yet another case where a conviction was based solely on flawed arson forensics and the defendant, Alfredo Guardiola, is still sitting in prison after 19 years with another 20 years to go on his sentence for a crime he "almost certainly didn't commit." These are the arson cases Mann has identified so far where potentially innocent people are sitting in prison.
Jeff Blackburn of the Innocence Project of Texas (my former employer) says there are just more than 800 people currently incarcerated in Texas prisons for arson, and over the summer they were reviewing old cases for possible legal action. I haven't spoken to Jeff about this in a while, but one hopes these three men make it onto the short list if the cases against them are as weak as they appear from Dave's reporting. Since, unlike Todd Willingham, these fellows haven't already been executed, they're eligible to pursue state habeas claims just like the guys where new DNA evidence was discovered.

That said, some innocent defendants inadvertently exhaust their habeas claims because they file pro se briefs to the court without an attorney or significant new evidence, getting themselves labeled "writ abusers" after multiple, unsuccessful submissions. State Sen. John Whitmire carried legislation this year that would have ensured such defendants could get back into court when there is new scientific or forensic evidence affecting their case. A deal had been cut with the prosecutors on final language but the bill died for reasons unrelated to its merits during the partisan meltdown over voter ID. If these arson cases have trouble on that score, it will provide further evidence the Lege needs to reform those habeas rules in light of the CCA's narrow interpretations.

Unfortunately, there's just no process for vetting these older cases except habeas petitions to the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals, which is led, of course, by self-described pro-prosecution Judge Sharon Keller. Who knows how that would go? Quite a few members of the CCA seem to think "finality" is a more important goal of the justice system than liberating the innocent.

Perhaps to expedite the process, Attorney General Greg Abbott should mimic the approach to DNA cases by Dallas District Attorney Craig Watkins and partner with the Texas Innocence Project to vet old arson cases with disputed convictions for erroneous forensic testimony. We're not talking about that many to go through en toto, and until somebody has undertaken that task, we can't be sure there aren't more, possibly many more innocent people sitting in prison based on false arson convictions.

See prior, related Grits posts:


Karo said...

It appears you were correct again Mr. Grits: the Willingham discussion really is all about the death penalty.

This empty thread seems to indicate that your regular readers apparently have less interest in discussing the possibility of living people wrongly convicted of arson.

... or maybe it is just "Willingham fatigue."

Ryan Paige said...

I'm very interested in the living people who may be sitting in jail on poor science, which is why is pretty damned important for the one commission that's looking into this sort of thing to actually finish its work rather that letting the governor play politics and delay, delay, delay.

It's all connected. If the arson findings are junk science in other, similar cases, then it's junk science in the Willingham case. If it's junk science in the Willingham case, it's junk science in the other cases.

You can't say one is true and the other is false. So, as long as the science is ignored in the Willingham case, it will continue to be ignored (in any kind of organized statewide effort to ferret out cases) everywhere else, too.

And any commission the legislature sets up will still be subject to the same kind of politics that the Forensic Science Commission is dealing with now.

So, the real answer would be to let the stupid commission do what it was supposed to do. But we're passed that now. So, all we're left with is the hope that the legislature will expand post-conviction DNA testing rights to cover all sorts of potential changes in scientific knowledge, and I don't think that's likely to happen.

of course, if the individual county D.A.s had any care in the world about making sure they actually did their jobs correctly, they'd routinely support the kind of evidence retesting when the scientific consensus changes. But it's like pulling teeth to get most county D.A.s to even support DNA testing, so I wouldn't hold my breath waiting for that kind of concern from most district attorneys.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

FWIW Karo, I notice you aren't as inspired, either, to critique in detail the updated fire investigations in these non-DP cases. Yet on Willingham you've surely spent hours opining in Grits comments on the topic.

Something I've observed in this blog's 5 years is that comment strings that fill up with long conversations not infrequently involve one or two people writing half the posts or more, as you've sometimes done on Willingham, espousing some controversially illogical conclusion or outrageous, always anonymous, half-baked allegation, usually with insults and harsh words but little evidence. In other words, often a long string just means readers took the troll bait. That's perhaps evidence of lack of wisdom, but its absence doesn't necessarily connote a lack of interest.

Perhaps more fundamentally, innocence is a bipartisan issue, while the death penalty is not. So we don't get so many comment flame wars when there's relative consensus.