Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Forensic Science Commission diverting resources from investigating negligence, misconduct

This morning I attended the first public meeting of the Forensic Science Commission's Complaint Screening Committee, but arguably the most significant event of the day occurred in the meeting of the full commission where they voted 5-1 to hire a full-time General Counsel.

I've opposed this move since Chairman John Bradley first suggested it back in January. The commission just meets quarterly and really has little need for a full-time General Counsel, plus the Attorney General was already providing those services at no cost. My personal opinion is that the desire to bring on a General Counsel stems largely from two of the chair's goals: To more tightly control the process through a staffmember reporting directly to him, and to divert resources that would otherwise go into investigating misconduct to an unnecessary staff person, soaking up money in a way that limits the amount of actual investigation the commission can do.

No sooner had the FSC voted to create a General Counsel slot, the meeting of the full group ended and the Complaint Screening Committee meeting began. I thought it took a great deal of chutzpah for Mr. Bradley to then immediately turn around and argue (unsuccessfully) that complaint screening should be delayed until the General Counsel could create summary documents on each case to frame the issues for the committee. The other committee members were somewhat taken aback by the suggestion, which if implemented would mean they'd have traveled to Austin for no reason. They went ahead and evaluated the 9 pending complaints, choosing to send only one of them through the process Bradley suggested regarding the General Counsel.

And speaking of the complaint screening, it's ironic that the only complaint the committee approved for investigation today was one where the two scientists on the committee believed there wasn't a significant issue to address. The complaint regarded the Austin police crime lab and allegations earlier this year that were investigated and dismissed by a national accrediting association and other investigators. The scientists on the panel pointed out that the complaints did not implicate any specific case and enough investigation had already been done. But Bradley said the Commission needn't only be the bearer of "bad news," and that it would be worthwhile to "deliver a positive message" to accredited labs that affirmed the value of their work. On that basis, the others agreed to recommend the case to the full commission for investigation.

To me, this stratagem by Bradley smacked of the same motive as the creation of a General Counsel position that siphons resources for investigations. Clearly the FSC has limited resources and if most of them are wasted on cases where there's no suspicion of negligence or misconduct - the only areas they actually have purview to investigate - they won't be able to devote significant time or resources to investigating new complaints.

Seven of the nine complaints were rejected either because they were outside the commission's jurisdiction or because the information provided was insufficient to identify any alleged wrongdoing to investigate. The one interesting exception was a request for reconsideration (by Dr. Peerwani, who is the Tarrant County medical examiner) of a case involving fallacious testimony by a crime lab testimony in a date rape case. Peerwani said the testimony given was "clearly wrong," and also critical to the jury verdict. Previously the case had been rejected because the FSC had considered fallacious testimony by crime lab workers outside their purview, but over time the commission's stance has evolved and now, Peerwani said, most commissioners and their adviser from the Attorney General think they should be willing to examine faulty testimony. Because FSC rules don't envision reconsideration of such cases, Bradley and the other committee member rejected the case. But I wouldn't expect this will be the last time the issue comes up.

The one case the committee neither rejected nor recommended - instead asking the new General Counsel to do a write-up on it - was one submitted by the Innocence Project of Texas related to an arson case on behalf of a woman named Sonia Cacy (see extensive background here). The merits of the case are strong and it seems highly likely Ms. Cacy is indeed actually innocent. The only sticking point: the case involves a lab which was not accredited at the time of the incident (since accreditation was only required by state law a few years ago). Though their governing statute says they should only investigate accredited labs, since accreditation was only recently required, the commission has in the past accepted other cases where labs weren't required to be accredited at the time of the incident but are now. Based on that precedent, I doubt the commission will cave in to Bradley's argument on that score.

UPDATE: Chuck Lindell, the only MSM reporter in the room at this event, has a brief story on the meeting in the Austin Statesman.


Anonymous said...

I'm confused.

Is it the position of the FSC to only perform investigations into scientific misconduct that pertain to specific cases, concerns raised by lawyers/Innocence Project? Or will they also investigate general scientific misconduct of a lab, such as those concerns raised by the forensic analyst in the Austin crime lab?

And how would an investigation from the TFSC differ from an investigation by a DA's Office, The Texas Department of Public Safety, or ASCLD-LAB (cf. "national accrediting association and other investigators")?

It could be argued that because ASCLD-LAB gets paid by the crime lab they are investigating, ASCLD-LAB's results could be skewed to favor a valuable customer.

And any investigation by TxDPS or a District Attorney may be less-than-transparent in order to avoid any public display of "embarrassing" facts (e.g. poorly trained analysts, mismanagement, brady violations).

These days, the TFSC appears to be more concerned with litigations rather than scientific matters.

Can anyone explain why an attorney is heading a scientific committee?

Gritsforbreakfast said...

"Is it the position of the FSC to only perform investigations into scientific misconduct that pertain to specific cases, concerns raised by lawyers/Innocence Project? "

It doesn't have to be an innocence project or lawyer (the Austin lab case wasn't). But their investigations are supposed to focus on instances of neglect or misconduct; the scientists on the panel raised concerns that there were no specific allegations of either in the Austin case and that it seemed to be more about office personality conflicts than problems of science.

And an attorney is heading the committee because the Governor appointed him. It's really the only reason.

JohnT said...

As an aside, the NY Times Science section yesterday ran an article on computing the "rarity" of a fingerprint. The unstated implication is that many fingerprints are false identifications.

A "rarity" computation needs to be done on lifted prints to give a statistical assurance of the accuracy of the ID.

The article goes on to compare fingerprint accuracy with DNA, but has the unstated implication that some number of DNA samples also fail the "rarity" test.

Here's a pointer to the article:

Texas Maverick said...

Not very scientific, but last nite's "Good Wife" segment was a combination of last minute appeal of a death row case (Sharon Keller) that was murder by arson (they used the Willingham case multiple times in the show). At least Texas provides good scripts for TV even if the commission continues to be diverted from it's legislative directive. Gotta give Bradley credit, trying to corral him is like eating a plate of spaghetti with your hands tied behind your back. Messy!

Anonymous said...

Spending funds to pay for legal counsel, now provided by the AG, in an era of legislative mandated cutbacks is nothing short of fiscal irresponsibility.

Anonymous said...

Bradley is the master of sleazy political games. Texas will be a better place when he leaves office. Any office, I suspect he could do tremendous damage to the justice system in the role of village dog catcher.

Anonymous said...

So, what complaints did they reject?

Anonymous said...

It's a pity that the FSC's remit wouldn't cover an investigation into the antics of Dr. Richard Coons, the "killer shrink" who for over 25 years testified - sometimes for over $400 an hour - that convicted capital defendants would be dangerous in future. The CCA finally called time on him in October, but this quack soaked up public funds while sending many to their deaths. He admitted himself that there was no scientific methodology behind his predictions.

Anonymous said...

There is a clear place for attorneys on the commission. While attorneys don't understand the full details of the science, the scientists don't grasp the full details of the law. By nature of the beast, the commission should be the two groups working together. Note, I'm talking about this commission, and not something that is pure science such as the NAS or AAFS.

That being said, John Bradley is the opposite of what a decent prosecutor, and human being, is supposed to be. He has never been one to care about the truth or to encourage dilligent investigation. He argues against testing to overturn FALSE convictions and does all he can to make sure that the largest employment sector of this state is the prison system. I've never seen what the people that he keeps suckering into voting for him see in him. It can't be his personality any more than his ethics.

I'm not sure how much longer the TFSC can last under his tenure. With his misappropriations, misallocations, and abuse of authority, not to mention an obstructionist attitude, it's doomed to fail soon by virtue of budget or simple lack of use. A shame, really.

Maybe we can send a message to the legislature this time around to make alterations to the TFSC structure, and do so in a way that congress, not Perry, has control. Then maybe real justice can be done.