Saturday, May 14, 2011

Don't further politicize Forensic Science Commission

The national Innocence Project issued this press release criticizing floor amendments to a bill about the Forensic Science Commission that would weaken its authority and give the Governor total control over appointments. Here's the text:
Texas Senate Passes Bill that Would Significantly Weaken Investigations by the Texas Forensic Science Commission
(Austin, TX -- Friday, May 13, 2011) The Texas Senate passed a bill today that would significantly weaken the Texas Forensic Science Commission’s ability to conduct investigations to ensure quality forensic evidence and prevent wrongful convictions. The amendments, which were made by Senator Juan “Chuy” Hinojosa, were added to an earlier version of a bill on the commission following a report by the commission last month finding that the forensic evidence used to convict Cameron Todd Willingham was based on outdated forensic science. 
“This legislation, if passed, would allow the governor and his allies - instead of the forensic and scientific experts now sitting - to determine what is good forensic evidence.  It would also hide all ongoing commission investigations from public view by making a radical exception to the open meetings law,” said Stephen Saloom, Policy Director for the Innocence Project, which is affiliated with Cardozo School of Law.  “While it should come as no surprise given Governor Perry’s year and half crusade to destroy the commission, this is politics at its absolute lowest, obviously intended to wrest control from a commission that puts science and justice over politics, as it did in its recent Willingham/Willis report.  While these amendments may serve the Governor, they are terrible for all other Texans except the real perpetrators of crimes who go free when the wrong person is convicted by bad forensic evidence – or when jurors refuse to convict based on proper forensic evidence because they believe that past forensic problems were not fixed. This legislation must be stopped in the House.”  
As amended, Senate Bill 1658 appears to significantly weaken the authority of the commission by:
  • Giving all appointment power to the governor alone, as opposed to splitting that power with the attorney general and lieutenant governor as is present practice;
  • Reducing the number of commissioners from 9 to 7, and no longer requiring the varied scientific expertise currently required;
  • Changing terms of service to remove all non-gubernatorial appointees as soon as possible;
  • Preventing public access to commission investigation materials, potentially indefinitely, by making an exception to the Open Records Act
  • Removing the requirement that the commission issue a written report for investigations that involve labs unaccredited by DPS or involving a forensic method or methodology that is not an accredited field of forensic science; 
  • Blocking the commission from finding negligence or misconduct in investigations involving unaccredited labs and forensic methods/methodologies that are not an accredited field of forensic science;
  • Making commission reports in admissible in a civil or criminal action.
A copy of amended Senate bill 1658 that passed today is available here. A copy of the amendments are available here and here. A copy of the existing law on the commission is available here. The commission’s findings in the Willingham investigation is available here.
The Innocence Project is a national litigation and public policy organization dedicated to exonerating wrongfully convicted people through DNA testing and reforming the criminal justice system to prevent future injustice. To date, 270 people nationwide have been exonerated through DNA testing and dozens of states have implemented critical reforms to prevent wrongful convictions.
I'd testified in committee in favor of this bill on behalf of the Innocence Project of Texas, but I couldn't agree more these amendments are a deal-killer. Indeed, testimony from crime lab staff in the committee hearing urged going in the opposite direction - expanding the commission to include more issue-area experts. Instead, these amendments just make the commission more politicized, which is the last thing it needs. There are still some positive elements in the legislation, but not enough to justify supporting it given these unfortunate, last-minute changes.

MORE: From the Fort Worth Star-Telegram.


Anonymous said...

This bill is a poorly worded re-write.

There are too many subjective "if" and "may" (as in, "If we feel like doing our job..." and, "may or may not have to do our job...")

This amendment, in some instances, seems to further confuse their responsibilities.

They should let a SCIENTIST write the bill.

Anonymous said...

As an interesting comparison to the current state of the FSC and the legislation, listen to the testimony of J. Bradley on Nov 10, 2009 in front of the Sentate Committee of Criminal Justice. Remember that he had only been Chair of the FSC for a little over a month at the time of the hearing.

It's like night and day...
How quickly ideologies changed.

Jennifer Laurin said...

Scott or others, any thoughts on why Hinojosa offered these amendments? Does it just reflect my naivete that I'm a bit surprised to see him aiding in apparent efforts to undermine the Commission's work?