Saturday, October 16, 2010

The politics of reexamining flawed arson forensics

While I was away from the blog for a day or so (in Dallas for the Innocence Project of Texas' annual meeting), several items cropped up which deserve Grits readers attention regarding the Todd Willingham case and parallel inquiries into arson science at the Forensic Science Commission and a court of inquiry in Austin.

At a meeting yesterday, members of the Forensic Science Commission called out Chairman John Bradley for issuing statements to the media calling Willingham a "guilty monster." The Austin Statesman reports that
Members of the Texas Forensic Science Commission, investigating whether questionable science played a role in the conviction and 2004 execution of Cameron Todd Willingham, criticized the panel's chairman Friday for labeling Willingham a "guilty monster."

Chairman John Bradley's statement, made recently to The Associated Press, could damage the commission's credibility and raises questions about its objectivity, member Sarah Kerrigan said during Friday's commission meeting.

"We have no jurisdiction on guilt or innocence. It really muddies the waters, and it's confusing to the public when we go on record making statements on guilt or innocence," said Kerrigan, a forensic toxicologist and associate professor at Sam Houston State University. ...

six of the seven other commission members present at the meeting voiced disapproval or discomfort with the statement from Bradley, who also is chairman of the four-member investigative subcommittee looking into the Willingham case.

"What troubles me is that the public may now become concerned that the commission has lost sight of (its job) to discuss the forensic science involved," said commission member Lance Evans, a Fort Worth defense lawyer.
Mr. Evans' concerns perhaps arise a little late: The idea that the public would only "now become concerned" about Bradley's errant focus assumes they haven't been paying attention in the past.

Meanwhile, the probable cause hearing at the Willlingham court of inquiry was further delayed while opponents seek Judge Charlie Baird's recusal. Before the order delaying the proceedings came down from the Third Court of Appeals, however, Baird's court heard testimony from arson experts who said the conclusions by investigators 20 years ago were flawed. Reported the New York Times:
Under questioning by Barry Scheck, a founder of the Innocence Project, Mr. Lentini ridiculed critical testimony at the trial that 20 factors, including burn patterns on the floor and cracks in the windows, proved that Mr. Willingham spread accelerants to fuel the fire.

No such chemicals were found in the house, Mr. Lentini said. Much of the analysis of Manuel Vasquez, the state fire marshal in the Willingham trial, “didn’t even meet the standards of 1991,” a time that Mr. Lentini characterized as having “a wretched state of the art.”

The current fire marshal, Paul Maldonado, stands by the work of the original marshals in the Willingham case, which Mr. Lentini said he found mystifying.

Mr. Lentini said that the flaws in the science required the state to go back and take a new look at other arson convictions. “I can understand why the fire marshal doesn’t want to go back and review hundreds of cases,” he said. “But that’s probably his duty.”
There was also evidence presented that the jailhouse snitch in the case recanted his testimony back in 2000 but the recantation was never disclosed to Willingham's appellate lawyers. Reports the Houston Chronicle:
A San Antonio lawyer, Gerald Goldstein, another member of the Innocence Project team, told Baird that "jailhouse snitch" Johnny Webb twice recanted his earlier trial testimony that Willingham had confessed to killing his children.

Tracing Webb's criminal career to 1987, Goldstein called the man "a cornucopia of crime."
Prosecutors bought Webb's testimony, Goldstein charged, by downgrading an aggravating robbery sentence and arranging an early parole.

Webb first submitted a handwritten motion recanting his testimony in March 2000, Goldstein said. But authorities never provided it to Willingham's appeals lawyer.
Perhaps that alleged Brady violation - and potentially other examples of prosecutorial misconduct - help explain why the Navarro County DA is hell-bent on scuttling the court of inquiry? It's hard not to conclude such defensive reactions, in practice, only raise public awareness of the problems with faulty forensics and questions about the motives of those opposing a full vetting of the case.  Radley Balko argues that, ironically, by standing in the way of an inquiry into faulty arson science in the Willingham case, "these staunch capital punishment supporters are providing data points for the strongest arguments against the death penalty." That's the way it looks to me. Bradley and Co. have made a tactical blunder: By attempting to stop inquiries into flawed forensics, they've drawn more attention to the problem than anyone would have paid if the Forensic Science Commission had been allowed to go forward with its work without impediment.

RELATED: See the Stand Down blog for a roundup of coverage on the Willingham court of inquiry. Dave Mann at the Texas Observer has more including detail from Lentini's testimony.


zeety said...

Bradley is just pathetic.

Anonymous said...

Frontline takes a look at this one.

"Death by Fire
On air and online October 19, 2010 at 9:00pm (check local listings)"

Anonymous said...

Lowell, I'm voting against you for this charade. And I'm asking everyone I know to do the same. Protecting CFD and Judge Jackson is something your predecessors would have done. I wish you would have had the courage to seek justice instead.

Anonymous said...

Who was representing the State at the Baird "court of inquiry?" I read that Baird ruled that the Navarro County DA was not a party to the proceedings. Who was there to examine the testimony and qualifications of the Innocence Project witnesses? This whole deal wreaks of a one sided Kangaroo Court, Grits, with a preordained result. How anyone could find any decision by Baird to be legitimate under these circumstances is beyond me.

Anonymous said...

Well, 9:23, Baird asked Lowell to participate on behalf of Navarro County or the State, and he declined.

My biggest guess as to why: The jail house snitch that testified during Willingham's trial has recanted. Actually, he recanted ten years ago, four years prior to Willingham's execution, and the Navarro County DA's office never disclosed that to Willingham or his lawyers.

Lowell is covering for Pat Bachelor, the long time DA in Navarro County who hired Lowell out of law school.

Like 11:28 above, I'm hoping someone else run for DA next time. They'll have my vote.

Anonymous said...

12:27, according to the American-Statesman, Baird denied the Navarro DA's motion to recuse, on the basis that he was not a proper party to the proceeding. This was also an argument advanced by the lawyers for the Innocence Project. If that's right, there was NO ONE there representing the state or the prosecution. I'm not sure that even Grits could support such a totally transparent and biased effort to establish a finding of innocence on Willingham's part. What say you, Grits?

Anonymous said...

1:36, again, like I said, and I repeat, Lowell was invited to participate, but he DECLINED.

You want to blame anyone, blame the state's only attorney in the whole thing, who didn't want to be a part of the proceeding.

Any of the witnesses called by the state would have to admit that their star witness lied on the stand, and that they knew it years before the execution.