Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Defiant John Bradley rebuffed on secrecy pleas

Blogs play different roles in different types of news stories. Frequently Grits covers topics that receive very little attention from the press, in which case simply reporting what goes on provides a meaningful service. But some stories, like Gov. Rick Perry's replacement of the Texas' Forensic Science Commission chairman with Williamson County District Attorney John Bradley, take on a media life of their own. In those cases, nobody really needs me to give the blow by blow.

Yesterday's Texas Senate Criminal Justice hearing was attended by a full-blown media gaggle, whose coverage I compiled as comprehensively as I could at the end of this post. The whole thing was well covered in the MSM, so I won't give a soup to nuts account here, but rather offer my own after-the-fact impressions. All the usual suspects were there: Between the press, legislators, staff and the audience, it seemed like I knew about 2/3 of the people in the nearly-full hearing room, on both sides of the debate. (Even Judge Barbara Hervey from the Court of Criminal Appeals was kind enough to stop and say "hello.")

Mr. Bradley was the sole witness at the hearing. He seemed to thrive in the limelight with his ego swelling more and more as his performance wore on, to the point at the end of near-open defiance toward Sen. Rodney Ellis and state Rep. Tommy Merritt, the chairman of the House Law Enforcement Committee who sat in on the hearing. In many ways, it was quite an arrogant performance - answering nothing concretely and accusing (implicitly or explicitly) anyone who disagreed with him of bias. Several times Bradley spoke of the Innocence Project with a disdainful sneer as a "New York nonprofit," as though Jeff Blackburn of the Innocence Project of Texas weren't sitting just six feet behind him in the audience. As though Texans don't really care about innocent people locked up in prison.

To dredge up a quote from an old Terry Allen song permanently ensconced in Grits' sidebar, Mr. Bradley, "I don't wear a Stetson, but I'm willing to bet son that I'm as big a Texan as you are."

Bradley's main theme, to which he returned several times, was that the Forensic Science Commission had been "hijacked" by people with anti-death penalty agendas. I kept wondering which statewide GOP official who makes appointments to the commission - Rick Perry, David Dewhurst, or Greg Abbott - does he believe aided and abetted this "hijacking"? Apparently Gov. Perry's original appointees were to blame, since getting rid of them, we're now told, will somehow result in depoliticizing and professionalizing the commission. Sen. Whitmire and others reminded Bradley that those "third parties" of whom he was so dismissive were actually representatives of the public, but that did nothing to mitigate the DA's disdain.

Bradley claimed he's not a political "pawn" (perhaps he considers himself a bishop, knight or a rook), but his main agenda was clearly to justify an open-ended delay in pursuing the commission's pending work. Expect the denouement of the Todd Willingham case to be delayed many, many months - it could easily be after the 2010 general election before the FSC takes it up again, to judge by the timeline laid out yesterday. Bradley says the commission first needs to establish rules, which they'll begin to discuss at their January meeting. Assuming the earliest they might vote on rules would be at their next quarterly meeting, more likely even later, new rules won't be in place until, at the earliest, next fall to consider pending business.

Steve Saloom of the national Innocence Project said at a press conference after the hearing that the commission's enabling legislation does not authorize it to create rules. He later elaborated that former Chair Sam Bassett asked the Attorney General's representative who attended every FSC meeting whether or not they should create written rules, and the AG said they weren't authorized to do so. The reason, said Saloom, was that "The Legislature didn't want to create a behemoth bureaucracy. They wanted it to be composed of experts, and they wanted it to be lean."

Saloom added, "Does [Mr. Bradley] want to add a layer of bureaucracy? ... or is he just doing this to stall?" Whatever his intent, there can be no argument that the outcome is to stall.

Despite the obvious delaying tactics, the good news was that no one on the Senate committee seemed sympathetic with Bradley's request to create exceptions to the Public Information Act for FSC investigations, much less allowing the commission to meet in secret. Whitmire said his intent in authoring the bill was for the agency to be "very transparent, very public." Even Sen. Dan Patrick told Bradley he wants to see "transparency in all the work that you do."

Sen. Whitmire made a point that I brought up yesterday on Grits - the commission's role is to examine the science, not investigating and punishing individual wrongdoing like a law-enforcement or regulatory agency. Oddly enough, Bradley agreed (!), but it's easy to say so when his actions contradict that sentiment: Bradley told the committee he'd asked the Texas Rangers to suggest secrecy standards for investigations, even though the commission is investigating science, not necessarily criminal conduct. As the Houston Chronicle's Rick Casey pointed out, "the job of the commission is to investigate science, not crime. The investigative procedures for that should be developed by forensic scientists, not members of a police agency that will be subject to the commission's review."

Sen. Rodney Ellis gave out some data on arson cases I hadn't heard before: He said 742 people are currently locked up in TDCJ for arson, with 275 per year on average convicted statewide on felony arson charges. Ellis said there's no way to know right now if state of the art arson science had been used in all of those cases. (The short answer is: probably not, especially the farther back you look.) According to insurance industry data, Ellis said, about 43,000 fires per year nationwide result from arson.

Overall, the committee appears committed to increasing oversight of the FSC and making sure Mr. Bradley doesn't succeed in making the agency secretive and unaccountable. Of all the comments from senators, perhaps the most telling was one of the most low-key from Sen. Glen Hegar, a Republican who told Bradley he took the Senate's role confirming Governor's appointees "very seriously" and reminded him that they'd all be watching. I took away from the hearing that there's a bipartisan consensus on the committee, at least for now, that Texas needs to confront bad forensics instead of bury the problem under a mountain of bureaucracy, procedure and doublespeak. Mr. Bradley, by contrast, appeared to be promoting quite a different agenda. Time will tell how it all plays out.


Anonymous said...

I have to assume that Governor Perry believes that Texans are only interested in making sure innocent people don't go to jail when those innocent people are married to people he appointed to the Texas Supreme Court.

We must protect Friends of Rick. Everyone else can suck it (I'm pretty sure that's the official slogan of the Perry Administration).

Nick said...

Near the closing of the hearing when Bradley was asked a timetable on the Willingham report/results, he used the term "With all deliberate speed..."

Where have we heard this before...?

A pretty telling choice of words from Mr. Bradley.

Anonymous said...

I am relishing in the "egg-on-face"-ness of John Bradley, whose ego is immeasurable. This guy needs to come down to reality and face the facts--he ain't nobody special. He is just being used by Perry to cover his ass. Everybody knows this no matter how much JB and Perry deny it.

Anonymous said...

Did you notice Bradley's goofy body language towards the end. He was sitting back in his chair looking like George W trying to project confidence, but his foot was bouncing up and down like a kid sitting in front of the principle trying to explain why his homework is going to be late.

Anonymous said...

JB is a clown. A few of my fellow prosecutors think he's the cat's pajamas, but most of us know he's a blowhard and an asshat. This is his way of trying to make a name for himself before he runs statewide, when a lot of very interesting skeletons will leap from his closet onto the stage.

Anonymous said...

Hey, Anon 8:10.

Was John in office, or working as a First Assistant Wilco District Attorney, when the politically connected rancher shot the LCRA biologist?

Is this one of those skeletons: The failure of the DA's office to get an indictment of the rancher?

Anonymous said...

Perry continues to use "Over the top people" to draw the focus away from himself and his blatant wrong doing. Jay Kimbrough was the class clown for TYC and Bradley is the new political operative in this matter. Standard Perry operation step by step. Debra Medina looks better every day as a Perry replacement come next election! We need someone as Texas Governor who might actually be concerned about our state instead of what they can get for themselves!

Atticus said...

Bradley's job is simply to run out the clock until past the Primary for Perry and it doesn't appear there's anything that will stop him from doing that...

Deb said...

So Bradley running statewide? What's he aiming for, anyone know?

Either way, I hope a strong challenger will FINALLY step up to run in 2012 against Bradley in Wilco. Let's use those skeletons to beat him here before risking him taking a statewide office.

Did a little reading up on his appointment and found an Oct. Burka blog entry which also happens to give Grits kudos! :)

Anonymous said...

Grits, have you even bothered to look at the statute that created the FSC? While you are correct that it wasn't established to investigate criminal conduct by specific persons, it was likewise not created to investigate possible "wrongful convictions.". Whitmire himself explained that the principal motivation for the legislation was the HPD crime lab debacle. The fact that it evolved into the investigation of practices used by local fire officials used in a 1991 capital case speaks volumes about how the commission was "hijacked" by your friends Rodney Ellis, Barry Scheck and the Innocence Project.
So are you and Sen. Ellis now suggesting that we need to go back and reinvestigate all the old arson cases from the 70's, 80's and 90's just because investigative technology has improved? What about all the sexual assaults, child molestation cases or murders from those eras? Are you suggesting that each time there's a new tecnological advancement that legions of closed cases need to be reinvestigated? Do you even care what the cost might be? While you profess to just be concerned about making sure the innocent aren't wrongly convicted, the practical impact of the reforms advocated by you and the Innocence Project would be a circumstance where it would be impossible to convict the guilty.
I wonder how many police officers could be put on the street for the money you'd like to spend reinvestigating closed cases?

Bottom line: your anti-establishment advocacy is just one small step from anarchy. Stated differently, I think you'd be quite happy to shift money from police budgets over to liberal, do-good groups like that "New York non-profit," even if it meant taking officers off the street.

The FSC is a joke and the statute ia so vague that no one really has a clue what its supposed to be doing or how its supposed to do it. Kudos to the Governor and John Bradley for slowing this albatross down!!!

Gritsforbreakfast said...

11:09, you appear to be under several serious misconceptions. First, I never said, anwywhere, that the purpose of the FSC is to investigate wrongful convictions, so I feel no need to defend a position I've never taken just because you would like to attribute it to me. Try reacting to what's said instead of just making things up and pretending to argue against straw men.

Re: "Are you suggesting that each time there's a new tecnological advancement that legions of closed cases need to be reinvestigated?"

Yes, if the new tech advancement means that forensics which the courts previously relied on to secure convictions are flawed and caused innocent people to be sent to prison (or to death row), the old cases need to be reevaluated. You'd think so too if you were convicted based on false evidence.

Most of the suggestions I make for the justice system on this blog would make it cheaper, not more expensive. It's the folks who want to lock everybody up ad infinitum for petty offenses who really run up the costs.

Finally, it's simply false that it's not possible to secure convictions using legitimate evidence. Just because YOU believe police are that incompetent doesn't mean it's actually the case.

Raphael Hythloday said...

"... state Rep. Tommy Merritt, the chairman of the House Law Enforcement Committee who sat in on the hearing."

Rep. Merritt is the chairman of the House Committee on Public Safety. The name was changed from Law Enforcement this last legislative session back to Public Safety. I'm sure you know that and it's just an oversight.


Gritsforbreakfast said...

Thanks Raphy, good catch. Yeah, it's the exact same committee, same issues, etc.; they all run together after a while. That's what bloggers get for not having editors!