The nine-member Texas Forensic Science Commission will be the focus of a hearing in November by the state Senate Criminal Justice Committee, which includes three senators who helped lead the push to create the oversight panel five years ago.
Until recently, the commission was all but invisible to most Texans, struggling to overcome a lack of funding and gain its operational footing.
But that changed after the panel launched a review of the arson investigation that helped convict Cameron Todd Willingham in the deaths of his three daughters, who were killed in a house fire two days before Christmas in 1991. Willingham, who insisted he was innocent, was executed in 2004.
"Most people had no idea there was a Forensic Science Commission, but they know about it now," said Sen. Rodney Ellis, D-Houston, who suggested that the panel’s name should be changed to "political science commission" after Perry dismissed three commission members. "It has a cloud over it now," said Ellis, a member of the Criminal Justice Committee. "Its credibility has been severely tainted."
Perry said the dismissals were part of the normal process to replace members whose terms had expired. But the timing of his actions has prompted criticism that Perry was trying to gut the commission to avoid potentially embarrassing findings. The shake-up forced the cancellation of a meeting to hear fire expert Craig Beyler, who has denounced the arson investigation that led to Willingham’s execution.
Perry replaced Chairman Sam Bassett, an Austin defense attorney, with Williamson County District Attorney John Bradley of Georgetown. Also dismissed were Alan Levy, a top prosecutor in the Tarrant County district attorney’s office, and Aliece Watts of Burleson, a forensic scientist at a private laboratory in Euless.
Sen. John Whitmire, D-Houston, the committee chairman, said Bradley will be invited to the hearing to discuss his intentions for the commission. Whitmire said he will ask Bradley about his plans for the Willingham inquiry but stressed that the hearing will not be a full review of the case itself. He declined a request from another committee member, Sen. Juan "Chuy" Hinojoso, D-McAllen, to invite Beyler to testify.
"My intention is to give Bradley a chance to get in there and tell us where he’s going with the commission," Whitmire said. "We’ll get to the bottom of the process and where it should go."
Bradley told the Star-Telegram that he needs time bring himself up to speed on the workings of the commission and doesn’t have a timetable for resuming the inquiry into the Willingham case. He declined to preview what he plans to tell the Senate panel "out of respect for Sen. Whitmire and his committee."
"I look forward to working with him on educating the public on the mission of the Forensic Science Commission," he said.
Sen. Kel Seliger, R-Amarillo, committee vice chairman, said he agrees that Bradley should have some time to "get his feet on the ground" but adds that there should not be a long delay in the Willingham inquiry.
"I would be surprised to see John Bradley delay things," Seliger said. "I think public sentiment would not favor that. There’s a lot of public attention on this, and it’s an important issue."
Make-up of the panel
The commission was created in 2005 through legislation pushed by Whitmire, Hinojoso and Ellis, largely to improve forensic work and to crack down on misconduct in crime labs. The governor appoints four of its nine members, the lieutenant governor three and the attorney general two.
Seven members are experts in forensic science or laboratory medicine, including several from designated universities. One is Dr. Arthur Jay Eisenberg, a molecular biologist who heads the DNA Identity Laboratory at the University of North Texas Health Science Center in Fort Worth and oversees the Texas Missing Persons Database, which the Legislature created in 2001. The law requires that the position be permanently represented on the commission.
The governor also appoints a prosecutor and a defense attorney, based on recommendations from two major legal associations, to the two remaining slots.
"I was the idiot on the commission in the sense that I’m on there with a bunch of scientists who really know what they’re doing," said Levy, who was on the panel for four years before his dismissal. "It’s a great commission, I thought. Whitmire and others should be applauded for doing it."
A sluggish start
But Perry and other state leaders have appeared unenthusiastic about the panel, some of its supporters say. It got off to a sluggish start and wasn’t fully funded until 2007, slowing its work in reviewing a backlog of complaints. Even now, it has only one full-time staff member and a $500,000 operating budget for the 2010-11 state budget cycle. Ellis said he heard rumors during the 2009 Legislature that Perry was trying to kill funding for the program, but Hinojoso and a top aide to Whitmire said they were unaware of such efforts. The governor’s office flatly dismisses the reports.
The commission agreed to look into the Willingham case in 2008 on a request by the New York-based Innocence Project and commissioned Beyler, a noted arson expert in Baltimore, to examine the procedures used by arson investigators.
In his report, Beyler said the arson investigators had a poor understanding of fire science and concluded that a finding of arson could not be sustained. Corsicana officials, in a 21-page response prepared for the commission, have disputed Beyler’s findings, saying he distorted facts and overlooked inconsistencies in Willingham’s testimony.
Online: Beyler’s report, tinyurl.com/ygjngdo