Saturday, April 17, 2010

Todd Willingham Case: Public Comment Period at Next Meeting of Texas Forensic Science Commission April 23 in Dallas Area

The Texas Forensic Science Commission has posted its agenda for its meeting in Irving, Texas on April 23, 2010 at the Omni Mandalay Hotel at Las Colinas, 221 E. Las Colinas Blvd, Irving, Texas (Map and directions). The meeting starts at 9:30 AM, but is expected to last all day and the public comment period will be at the end of the meeting.

The agenda includes a period to accept comments from the public, although the proposed new rules on public comments say that the public comment period may be eliminated, reduced or postponed "if deemed necessary due to time constraints or other exigent circumstances". Each commenter will be given three minutes and must fill out a form and give it to the commission coordinator before the meeting.

Students Against the Death Penalty plans to attend the April 23 meeting and we encourage members of the public who wish to make comments to the commission to attend also. The commission needs to hear that the public wants them to speed up the process of investigating the Todd Willingham case and discussing the report given to the commission by Dr Craig Beyler, so that Texas can determine whether faulty forensic science lead to the wrongful conviction and execution of an innocent person.

Agenda for Texas Forensic Science Commission Meeting April 23, 2010

Rick Casey expects no major progress in the investigation until after the November election. He says in his Houston Chronicle column today:

The commission just posted its agenda for next week's meeting, again drawn up by Bradley though this time honoring some suggestions from commissioners. The first item: approval of Bradley's nominations for a number of committees, including an “investigative panel” for the Willingham case.
For that three-member panel, Bradley called his own number. The other two are Dr. Nizam Peerwani of the Tarrant County medical examiner's office and Sarah Kerrigan, the Scotland Yard-trained head of the forensic science graduate program at Sam Houston State University. Peerwani is one of Perry's new appointees. Kerrigan has been critical of Bradley's leadership.

Little progress expected

The group's first meeting is set for next Thursday, the day before the commission's meeting. Since it is scheduled for just two hours and is not expected to hear from Beyler or any other witnesses, don't look for it to advance the process much.
Bradley said he had planned to have the commission question Beyler at the October meeting, hear from critics of his report at the February meeting and then produce a final commission report by the spring or summer.
He said the nine members of the commission, a much smaller body than most congressional committees, were comfortable handling the matter as a whole.
If Bradley wanted to press the matter, I suppose he could push the investigative panel to produce a report by the July meeting and take action then or at the October meeting.
But to expect that, I suspect, would be doubly naive.
Scott Henson at Grits for Breakfast wrote a post critical of Bradley for creating the new three-person committee for the Willingham case instead of allowing the full commission to deal with it and for appointing himself as one of the members. Henson also suggested how the other commission members should handle the situation by making a motion to reconsider.
If one believes - as admittedly I do - that the Governor ousted his old appointees last fall and replaced them with Bradley and Co. for the purpose of scuttling the Willingham inquiry until after the election, then these new rules and committee assignments set them up admirably to accomplish the task. Particularly telling was the chairman's brazen decision to assign himself to the committee assessing the Willingham case. From the Startlegram: "The notion that he would be on this particular committee in light of everything that has gone on in the last year is particularly inappropriate," said Rep. Lon Burnam, D-Fort Worth. "A suspicious mind would be concerned about nefarious activities."

Burnam's right about Bradley and the appearance of neutrality. The Williamson County DA has already been sharply, publicly critical of the arson expert commissioned to investigate the lack of scientific rigor in the evidence presented at the Willingham trial. Bradley even tried to prevent the scientist from testifying before a legislative committee that requested his views on the role of expert testimony unrelated to the case.

What's more, a second member of the three-person committee, Dr. Peerwani, was also appointed last fall after the Governor interceded tochange the direction of the commission. So two of the three committee members evaluating the Willingham case were people who, by all appearances, were appointed to the Commission primarily to impede the investigation, not get to the bottom of the matter. Given that, there's a decent chance the thing never gets voted out of committee - that's what I'd do if I just wanted to kill it.

That's why, IMO someone on the commission should bone up on their parliamentary procedure and make a "motion to reconsider" at their next meeting later this month, because they were sold a pig in a poke. The Commission made the decision to create this new committee structure based on false pretenses, believing it wouldn't apply to pending cases. I was liveblogging the hearing at the time, and here's how I recorded the exchange on whether the Willingham case would go through the new committee process:

Dr. Kerrigan asked whether these rules apply to pending cases or new ones. Good question! Bradley said new or recent cases would be affected but not those already in the pipeline. A commissioner asked particularly whether cases where they'd already spent money on outside consultants would now have to go through the new process. Bradley said "no."
Later, though, just before the meeting ended:

Bradley backtracked after the rules passed to say old cases like Todd Willingham's in fact will go through his new committee process. That's a complete 180-degree flip from what he told the commission members twenty minutes ago, back when Commissioner Kerrigan told the chair her vote depended on his answer.
The next day, in a post reviewing the meeting, I accused Bradley of:

Dissembling: When a commissioner told the chairman her vote hinged on whether old cases already in the pipeline - including ones where the Commission had already paid outside consultants (there are only two) - would be subjected to the new committee process, Bradley said no, they would not. After the vote, when the meeting had nearly ended, Bradley insisted that Willingham's case must go through "part of" the new committee process. If he'd been honest about that during the debate, IMO a majority of commissioners present wouldn't have supported his rules.
That's sufficient reason to initiate a motion to reconsider, which is allowable under Robert's Rules if the motion is made by anyone - say, Dr. Kerrigan or her allies on the board - who voted for the rules at the last meeting. I think the Commission should reconsider and clarify the rules to have pending, longstanding cases bypass this new committee, which is what they were told would happen before they voted to create it.

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