Sunday, January 08, 2012

Will review of junk science in old arson cases go forward?

The Fort Worth Star-Telegram has a story today ("Texas debate on arson science reignited") on the review of junk science in old arson cases recommended by the Texas Forensic Science Commission in conjunction with my employers at the Innocence Project of Texas. The article suggests the project may be curtailed with the transition to a  new state fire marshal who may not be as committed to the review. The story by Yamil Berard opens:
It wasn't too difficult to convince a jury that Garland Leon "Butch" Martin of Midland was a wife abuser and a baby killer.

The day in 1998 that his common-law wife, Marcia Pool, threatened to leave him because of abuse, their house went up in flames, killing Pool and their 20-month-old daughter. Martin, who was not at home, was convicted of arson and is serving three concurrent life sentences.

But now, modern science may impugn the jury's decision. Martin's conviction is one that some believe was based at least in part on "junk" science.

A number of forensic scientists and others are calling for additional reviews of arson-murder cases like Martin's because evidence was analyzed by methods now called into question or proved wrong. Members of the Texas Forensic Science Commission say they don't have the jurisdiction to investigate these cases, but they have told the Texas Innocence Project to team up with the State Fire Marshal's Office to determine whether the state has incarcerated people for arson-murders based on outdated science.

"To the extent that this review goes on, it is because of the voluntary participation of these agencies who think it's the right thing to do," commission attorney Lynn Robitaille said. The commission is expected to discuss the issue in more detail at its meeting Friday.

At issue, however, is whether a comprehensive review of such cases can or will be done. Skeptics say that the assessments would require a lot of time and resources and that such extensive work may not be possible.

An estimated 700 to 900 people are in Texas prisons for arson-related crimes, according to various sources. Of those, about 100 are from Tarrant and Dallas counties, state inmate records show.

Furthermore, the marshal's office, which early on pledged to assist such a review, is in transition. Any success in reviewing cases may largely depend on whether the new state fire marshal makes such an effort a priority, some say.
Let's not have this fight again. The new fire marshal should stick with the agreement to review old cases.

MORE: In her coverage, the Texas Tribune's Brandi Grissom sounds more sanguine that the review will go forward.

See prior, related Grits posts:

Read more here:


dfisher said...

In 1994 I was involved in an arson investigation with the Harris County DA's Office. The fire was allegedly set by a Houston police officer & a guy he hired to help, in River Oaks. The Houston Arson Investigator declared the case unsolvable, but the DA's office wanted it reopened after the APD office was charged with sexual assault while on duty on Feb. 10, 94.

I caught the torch hire by the officer driving a stolen Mercedes that turned out to belong to a former Houston Mayor White and had him arrested. The morning after the torch was arrested by auto-theft; the arson detective who originally worked the case went to the jail and offered him a deal. The deal was, if he would give false testimony in the HPD Officer's sexual assault case, they would drop the auto-theft charge & if the torch named someone else, as the torch who set the fire with the officer, they would give him $5,000 from crime stoppers.

I caught all this on tape and confronted the Harris Co. Assistant DA and the DA's investigator, who told me they had just caught the Houston Arson Departments Detectives torturing a suspect to get a confession and this had been going on for decades. It was for this reason they had asked for my assistance in solving this case.

The case was later resolved with the torch serving 7 yrs. for auto-theft and the HPD Officer pleading guilty to the sexual assault that he did not commit, in exchange for the DA dropping the arson that he did commit. As an added inducement to plead guilty to the sexual assault, the HPD officer was allowed to keep the money he got from the insurance company for the arson.

Fast forward to Sept. 9, 2007, the Houston Chronicle did a follow-up story on the HPD DNA Crime Lab where they disclosed the DNA obtained in the officer's sexual assault case from 1994 failed to support the allegations against the officer.

The moral of this story is, until Texas has some honest investigating agency to pursue those giving false evidence, submitting false evidence, or Soliciting false testimony, nothing will change.

Phillip Baker said...

I must be naive, but I just never look for a cost/benefit study when the subject is real people doing real time yet innocent. I'm been around long enough to have seen govt claim not to have resources for this or that worthy cause, alas (always social spending)- and then suddenly "find" a way to fund some special interest project. If govt is committed to justice, it will find a way to look into those arson cases. But as we all know, that is a very big "if".