Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Hinojosa: Forensic commission dragging its feet

State Sen. Juan "Chuy" Hinojosa weighed in on the Forensic Science Commission controversy in a piece in the Fort Worth Star-Telegram ("Texas lawmakers say commission dragging its feet on fatal fire probe," May 11), where Yamil Berard wrote that:
a state lawmaker who drafted the legislation establishing the commission said that its mission is clear: to ascertain that the science used in forensic analyses is valid. The move to allow the panel to do additional research in the Cameron Todd Willingham case is a stalling tactic, he and another state lawmaker said.

"Commission members need to move on and act on the mission; they are moving at a snail's pace," said Sen. Juan "Chuy" Hinojosa, D-McAllen. "The perception is that they are dragging their feet, not being open and transparent."

Such opinions may be aired at the commission's July meeting, where Bradley said commissioners will iron out what the commission can and should do. Then, more specific lines may be drawn and guidelines enforced.

One point of contention is why the panel needs to look at the statement from Willingham's ex-wife and other evidence that doesn't address the science used to determine the source of the fire. Gov. Rick Perry, who has defended the handling of the case, has urged the media to review evidence and court records that he said clearly show that Willingham was a "heinous individual who murdered his kids."

But critics say the commission is to focus only on the validity of the forensic science.

"The commission isn't supposed to decide a person's guilt or innocence," said Stephen Saloom, policy director with the Innocence Project in New York, which filed the Willingham complaint with the commission in December 2006. "It is supposed to abide by its mandate, which is to investigate negligence of forensic analysis, not to reinvent the wheel and retry a conviction."


Anonymous said...

Any word on the TX DRL's new rules yet??????

Anonymous said...

Dragging their feet? ofcourse they are. Look who appointed them and look who's up for re-election.

Ryan Paige said...

Looking at statements and opinions from many other people, I see Texas Supreme Court Justice David Medina is a pretty heinous person, yet when he and his wife were accused of arson-related charges, their attorney focused on the science and got the charges dropped (I'm sure the political connections helped).

So why not the same standard for everybody else? Lots of really shitty people don't burn down their houses every day. I think Governor Perry is a pretty crappy individual, but even though his house was intentionally burned, nobody used the fact that he's an asshole to use that fire against him. The fact that he's a giant asshole had nothing to do with the fire itself.

We can never ascertain whether Willingham actually burned down his house or not. What we can do is educate fire marshals to use actual science rather than old wives tales and gut instinct when they're investigating fires.

As even the Medina case shows (if their house fire really wasn't intentionally set), big-county fire marshals are still classifying accidental fires as arson - long after the science should've caught up.

Ryan Paige said...

Oh, and personally, I don't think being dead should preclude a person from receiving a new trial if the situation warrants it. Cases with similar fire science problems have resulted in new trials for still-living individuals. That a person has died in the interim shouldn't preclude the ability of the court system to retry an individual.

ckikerintulia said...

Whether Todd Willingham was a "heinous individual" should be no concern of this commission. Whether the arson science that helped convict him was valid science should be.

Anonymous said...

Wouldn't any evidence supporting the proposition that Willingham committed arson be relevant to the integrity of the science used? We can quibble about the methodology until the cows come home but if the arson investigator called it arson, and there's other evidence in the case that supports that opinion, why shouldn't it be considered?

At any rate, I'm still not sure why we're even concerning ourselves with Willingham at all. That investigation happened nearly 20 years ago and it's common knowledge that arson science has advanced immeasurably in the intervening years.

Chuy just needs to get his panties out of a wad and let the process run its course. This whole debate just underscores my own belief that the FSC was hijacked by the anti-death penalty zealots before Bradley's appointment. Exhibit "A"--the interest of the Innocence Project of NEW YORK in our Texas criminal justice system.

Incidentally, thank you Mr. Saloom for taking the time out of your busy schedule to educate us poor, ignorant, redneck Texans on how our commission is supposed to work! Don't know what we'd do without benevolent Yankees like yourself to show us how things are supposed to be!

Anonymous said...

Incidentally, concerning Ryan's suggestion that we retry a dead man: Now THAT would be an efficient use of the taxpayers' dollars! But then again, when has a liberal ever concerned himself with spending other people's hard earned money? Good grief!

Gritsforbreakfast said...

1:29 writes: "if the arson investigator called it arson, and there's other evidence in the case that supports that opinion, why shouldn't it be considered?"

Because the commission is not evaluating that other evidence, they're charged with evaluating the science used in the case, which was flawed.

Also, the Willingham complaint was filed by Saloom's group; he gets to have an opinion.

Anonymous said...

Anon. If trying a 'dead' guy would get his named cleared then I am all for it. If you died in a similar fashion and knew you were innocent, You would be haunting people from the grave to ensure a trial was set.

Anonymous said...

2:46, I'm thinking our FINITE resources might be better spent on providing a quality defense to those defendants who are still ALIVE.

Anonymous said...

Grits, if there's other evidence in the record which supports the Arson investigator's finding, how can you really conclude the finding is flawed? And more importantly, if the technology has advanced so much in the last 20 years, why are we even wasting our resources on this case if it's not about something other than stirring up controversy over the death penalty? Really? Of course, the fact that Saloom's "group" filed the complaint with the FSC pretty much tells me all I need to know regarding the real agenda of those pushing this FSC "investigation." I guess that's why you want to narrowly focus on the antiquated arson science. If you (and Saloom and his ilk) can find fault there, the you can all step back and claim "here's proof that an innocent was executed in Texas!" On the other hand, stepping back and looking at ALL of the evidence objectively, reasonable minded people remain convinced that the Willingham jury got it right. I guess that really wouldn't serve your purpose would it?

Gritsforbreakfast said...

"how can you really conclude the finding is flawed"

Actually, I concluded the "science" was flawed, and therein lies the distinction you appear to be missing.

Anonymous said...

"FSC was hijacked by the anti-death penalty zealots before Bradley's appointment. Exhibit "A"--the interest of the Innocence Project of NEW YORK in our Texas criminal justice system."

Why is it the "death penalty zealots" always want to make this look like its about people trying to get rid of the death penalty and ignore the broader issure of wrongful convictions. But, on the other hand, maybe, because of this case and others we do need to take a look at the death penalty. Personally, I don't have a problem with the death penalty being applied in the appropriate circumstances. However, I do have a problem with innocent people being executed. The "death penalty zealots" seem to only care about preserving the death penalty, even if it means executing the innocent. So what if a few innocent people die at the hands of the state, we must protect the death penalty at all costs. I agree with the Houston judge who recently declared the death penalty unconstitutional because there is evidence that Texas has executed innocent people. If you "death penalty zealots" really want to protect the death penalty, the best way to do that is to advocate for reforms and improvements in the Texas criminal justice system so that you can make sure the people who are executed are guilty. I have no problem with the death penalty where the system is adequate. But, the Texas criminal justice system is too incompetent to be allowed to use the death penalty.

As far as the innocence commission. It may be headquartered out of New York but there is a very active division in Texas. Students at Texas law schools are involved in researching these cases. So, there are actually people in Texas who recognize there is a problem.

The people who always throw out the "anti-death penalty zealots" thing and then the "New York" innocence project thing are just trying to deny that there is a real problem in Texas. Those arguments are empty, meaningless, a waste of time, and show a lack of willingness or capacity to engage in intelligent discussion on the subject....or they are attempts to distract and deny the real issues here, that is the incompetence of the Texas criminal justice system. Maybe its a case of there being none so blind as those who will not see.

So, stop using the meaningless arguments: "This is just about anti-death penalty zealots" or "We don't need those New York innocence project people interfering in Texas bidness"... If you can't intelligently address the real issues...............shut up.

Anonymous said...

"But then again, when has a liberal ever concerned himself with spending other people's hard earned money?"

When did it become true that only liberals care about justice. I'm conservative on most issues but I believe in justice. If the man was innocent, he should be exonerated in some legal way. As far as an efficient use of the taxpayer's money...well, maybe the state should have gotten this right the first time....I'd blame the arson investigator who said the fire talked to him for wasting the taxpayers money....Where is your concern for the taxpayer money being wasted trying and incarcerating innocent people? If the investigators in this case hadn't been so quick to charge the man with arson, the taxpayers would have saved the cost of the trial, incarceration and execution (that is presuming he's innocent which none of us can say for sure).

Let's be honest're not the least bit concerned about wasting tax dollars, are you. You are only interested in supporting and protecting an incompetent system.

True conservatives believe in justice and the truth. If you think its a waste of money to find those things, you aren't really a conservative.

Anonymous said...

"the real agenda of those pushing this FSC "investigation."

What about the "real agenda" of those obstructing the investigation. It seems to me their agenda is to protect a very flawed system that has resulted in the incarceration of many innocent people and probably the execution of at least one innocent person. Isn't that the real agenda of those who are obstructing the investigation? Why would anyone oppose a search for the truth? Because they are afraid of the truth.

Anonymous said...

Well 3:30, why don't we just go back and let the FSC consider the the science supporting death sentences returned by juries in the early 1900's; or even in the 19th century? I'm sure you can find some flawed science there and maybe even a real innocent or two who were executed by public hanging! If you support the finding of that idiot judge in Harris County, then I really don't see how you can sit their with a straight face and claim you support the death penalty. The bottom line is that capital offenders in Texas are afforded more than enough due process. They get lawyers and appeals ad nauseum, and that's not to mention the interminable habeas proceedings after their regular appeals (state and federal) are exhausted! Is the system 100% perfect? Probably not. Has an innocent ever been executed in the history of Texas? Maybe, but I bet you can't show me one. And if Willingham is the best you can do for your poster child of "what's wrong with the death penalty in Texas," then maybe it's you who need to shut up and go back to whatever liberal, bleeding heart state you come from and stop stressing yourself about what goes on here. I have news for you. The overwhelming majority of folks in Texas really aren't unhappy with the way things are here!

Gritsforbreakfast said...

3:47, if there were still people sitting in prison based on 19th century science you might have a point. But you don't. Science Rick Perry relied on for an execution in 2004 is recent enough to potentially provide relief among innocent people in the existing inmate population. That's why to re-examine it, but not 19th century practices - pretending for a moment you were actually seeking answers instead of (as I suspect) just taking cheap, anonymous shots.

Anonymous said...

"then maybe it's you who need to shut up and go back to whatever liberal, bleeding heart state you come from and stop stressing yourself about what goes on here."

You know what happens when you ASSume. I was born and raised in Texas but when it comes to criminal justice I'm ashamed to call myself a Texan. There was a time when I thought like you until I really took a good hard look at the system. If Texas has such a good system, how do you explain how so many innocent people have ended up in prison there. Yes, there is a very long list of people who have been exonerated. The 40 or so from Dallas County exonerated on DNA evidence is just the tip of the iceberg. I may be wrong, but it seems like I read something like 17 or people have been exonerated from death row. How would you like to spend 20 years on death row for something you didn't do? Do you think that is a pleasant experience?

If you can look at all the evidence and conclude the protections given to defendants in the Texas criminal justice system are adequate.................I'm trying to be nice here........but you are just a moron......or you are being willfully blind or in denial..........I don't know, you pick which one you want to be.

Why are you afraid of allowing the Willingham investigation to proceed? If there is nothing wrong with the system, you should want the investigation to be completed so the system can be vindicated. Instead of repeating the tired defenses of the death penalty and calling everyone who wants the truth to be known a liberal (which by the way you are wrong about), why don't you make some substantive arguments about why the Willingham investigation should be obstructed......Come on...I want to hear them...

But, you won't. You will just go on to call me a liberal again (showing your ignorance) and shout about how we Texans (of which I am a native) want to execute everyone we can and could care less about guilt or innocence.

"The overwhelming majority of folks in Texas really aren't unhappy with the way things are here!"
The fact that many are ignorant about what's going on doesn't mean its okay.
I would like to think the people of Texas are better than that. That they actually believe in truth and justice and want to see that the right things are done, but I just don't know...

Anonymous said...

"why don't we just go back and let the FSC consider the the science supporting death sentences returned by juries in the early 1900's; or even in the 19th century? I'm sure you can find some flawed science there and maybe even a real innocent or two who were executed by public hanging!"

Actually, I do know of a case that occurred in Tenn around the turn of the century where an innocent black man, who had been accused of raping a white woman, was broken out of jail and lynched by a mob. He was exonerated by a court in 2000. It took almost 100 years. If Willingham is innocent, should it take 100 years to exonerate him? Have we not progressed or evolved as a society any in the last 100 years. I would say very little. At least we don't allow lynch mobs like we did then. The sad thing is, if they were still socially acceptable, there are plenty of people who would line up to participate. I bet 3:47 would be at the head of the line. Here's a question for ya 3:47. If you had the opportunity, after the Willingham fire, and you were convinced this man was guilty of murdering his kids, would you have participated in a lynch mob? I bet you would have. If you had the chance to participate in the lynching of the black man I mentioned before, beleiving without a doubt in his guilt, would you have, only to discover later he was innocent? I guess we have evolved as a society, now we let the state do our lynching for us.

By the way, I said I am okay with the death penalty and that's true. I am okay with executing the guilty. The difference in me and you is that you are also okay with executing the innocent.

Anonymous said...

4:00, there have been ZERO "exhonerations" from Texas death row. That's why the Innocence Project of NEW YORK is promoting all of this hysteria over Willingham. Sure, there have been any number of individuals who have gotten off of death row in Texas. Some due to their age, some for retardation and some due to technical errors in their trial that caused their sentences to become overturned and prosecutors chose not to retry them. None have been proven INNOCENT. My guess is that even Grits will painfully acknowledge this fact. Right now, at this very moment, there are approximately 150,000 inmates incarcerated in Texas prisons. If 40 DNA exhonerations is the best that you can do, I'm thinking the sytem in Texas must be working pretty good. I'll take those odds with me to Vegas any day of the week. By the way, I'll guess again. You're from Austin, eh?

Scott Cobb said...

to Anonymous 4:13

Ernest Willis is one of the innocent people who have been exonerated and released from Texas Death row. He was convicted of arson/murder just like Willingham. He was released in 2004 about 8 months after Willingham was executed. The Forensic Science Commission is investigating the forensic science used in the Willis case, as well as Willingham's case.

Anonymous said...

First, your assertion that no one has been exonerated from death row is wrong...thank you for playing, would you like to try again. I'll give the examples later, but first..

"If 40 DNA exhonerations is the best that you can do, I'm thinking the sytem in Texas must be working pretty good. I'll take those odds with me to Vegas any day of the week. By the way, I'll guess again. You're from Austin, eh"

Wrong again, small conservative east Texas town. I keep telling you I'm not a liberal but you won't believe me. I guess that's because, in your mind, anyone who disagrees with you is a liberal. Try to expand you intellectual horizons. Actually do some thinking about this stuff. If 40 DNA exonerations is the best I can do.......Let's apply a little thought and logic to that (I'm assuming you have those abilities). These 40 or so people were cleared on DNA evidence because of advances in science. If there were that many people, just in Dallas County who were wrongfully convicted on DNA many more others have been wrongfully convicted in cases where there is no DNA evidence. I would assume the percentages would be similar. So, applying logic to the situation there are many more people in Dallas County who have been wrongfully convicted but there is just no DNA evidence to clear them with. Now, expand that to the rest of the state. Other jurisdictions did not preserve evidence like Dallas County did. From what I understand Harris County did not. So you would likely have a similar percentage of people cleared in Harris County if the DNA evidence had been preserved. Now expand that number to include other Harris County convictions where there was no DNA evidence. No expand those numbers to the whole state. I don't claim to be a mathematician but I thaink you would end up with a pretty large number of wrongfully convicted people statewide. Are you comprehending this?

Next, consider the Tulia cases, the Dallas fake drug scandal cases, the Timothy Cole case, and speaking of death row, the Kerry Max Cook case. Cook was wrongfully convicted of a rape and murder in a case that has been called the worst case of prosecutorial misconduct in the country. Cook spent close to 20 years on death row, coming within days of being executed. Now, he was freed from death row and prison but hasn't technically been exonerated. But, everyone knows he's innocent and who the real killer is. This innocent man came within days of being executed. Continued in next post

Anonymous said...

Okay, now for death row exonerations: Michael Toney was freed from death row and died in a car crash shortly after. Prosecutors had not decided whether to retry him but the court overturned his conviction and released him. Curtis MCCarty, Shujaa Graham, and Ron Keine have been freed from death row and prison (I don't know their stories). Randall Dale Adams (born 1949) was falsely convicted of murdering a police officer and sentenced to death. He served more than 12 years in prison, at one point coming within 72 hours of being put to death. His death sentence was reduced through appeal to the United States Supreme Court, and eight years later he was released when evidence was uncovered to prove his innocence. Adams' case is profiled in the documentary The Thin Blue Line. Clarence Brandley is an African-American who, in 1981, while a janitor at a high school in Conroe, Texas, was wrongly convicted of the rape and murder of Cheryl Dee Ferguson, a 16 year-old student. Brandley was held for nine years on death row. After lengthy legal proceedings that ended in the Supreme Court of the United States, Clarence Brandley was freed in 1990. After his release, Brandley was involved in further legal proceedings over child support payments that had accrued over his time in jail, and ultimately with an unsuccessful $120 million dollar lawsuit against various agencies of the State of Texas.

There are more, but I dont' have time to do the research right now. The point is several people have come within days of execution only later to be exonerated.

Now, keep applying that logic. As explained above, the 40 or so DNA exonerations, plus cases like Tulia and others tell that there is likely a signfiicant number of people who are incarcerated in Texas who are innocent. We know several people have been exonerated from death row. Now.....keep thinking logically....Logic would tell us that it is very likely that Texas has executed and/or will execute innocent people.

One last point. I apologize for using the word moron before. I'm sure you're not a moron but if you really look a the system you can see there are problems. When you have rampant prosecutorial misconduct such as withholding evidence, frequent instances of police committing perjury, sleeping defense attorneys, a COurt of Criminal Appeals that says proof of actual innocence is not sufficient to overturn a conviction and many, many more can anyone seriously defend the Texas criminal justice system.

I hope you take what I've said here....realize that many of your assumptions (such as the one about no one being exonerated from death row) are not correct, and advocate for serious criminal justice reform in Texas.

Again, why would anyone object to the Willingham investigation continuing, unless they were afraid of the outcome?