Thursday, August 04, 2011

Caller Times: New limit on state forensics panel is a justice setback

— Even the most ardent supporters of the death penalty want to be sure that the condemned deserve their sentence. If a conviction can be proved wrongful, it should be — not just to prevent a pending execution, but to clear the names of the mistakenly executed and to learn how not to repeat such grievous errors.

How far such efforts should go is a matter of continuing debate. But they should go farther than the limit placed on them Friday by Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott. The attorney general decided that the Texas Forensic Science Commission can't examine forensic testing that predates the commission's 2005 inception.

That includes two arson investigations that helped send Cameron Todd Willingham to his execution for the 1991 house fire that killed his three children. The Willingham case was first. Three professional reviews of the arson investigations found fault with them — which doesn't prove Willingham innocent as he proclaimed he was, to his death in 2004.

But the reviews discredited the Texas Fire Marshal's investigative procedures and prompted the commission to issue recommendations in April for improved fire investigation training. The state fire marshal persists in standing by the Willingham investigations and its methods.
Abbott's opinion doesn't prevent the commission from looking into professional negligence or misconduct that occurred before the commission's inception. It just can't review evidence that was tested or introduced into evidence before then. So, assuming — as we do — that forensic science has progressed, Abbott's decision prevents the application of today's knowledge to correct mistakes by investigators who acted competently and in good faith but were limited by the technology of the day.
We'll go out on a limb and suspect that Texas imprisoned people wrongly convicted before 2005, including some on Death Row. Forgoing the potential to correct those mistakes because the commission didn't exist yet isn't justice.
The jury is out on whether it's politics, but there's a whiff of that in the Willingham case. Two years ago, then-not-yet-unofficial presidential candidate Gov. Rick Perry removed the commission's first chairman and two other members two days before they were to hear a report about serious problems with the Willingham investigation. Perry chose a prosecutor, Williamson County District Attorney John Bradley, to replace the ousted chairman, Sam Bassett, a defense lawyer.
The commission continued its investigation over Bradley's objections and rejected his attempt to approve a final report that stopped short of finding the arson investigations negligent. He also referred to Willingham as a "guilty monster."
Bassett said it was "interesting" that Abbott's opinion came out as the commission was completing its investigation. His choice of the word "interesting" is interesting in that it's a way of saying "suspicious" without using the word "suspicious."
How the Willingham case might play on a national stage during a Perry presidential campaign has been cause for much interesting speculation. Death penalty advocacy plus cowboy boots plus a potentially wrongful execution could equal trouble for Perry. If an unfavorable finding in the Willingham case would have been damaging, the Abbott ruling has compounded it by adding fuel for speculation.
Bottom line: Looking into the Willingham case and others that predate the commission's existence seems a prudent use of its time. If abuse of the appeals process by defense lawyers was the concern, the commission wasn't part of the problem. It's an instrument of justice, now weakened by Abbott's ruling.

No comments: