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2012 Archives

Editorial: Texas’ arson review revisited


The following editorial ran in the Jan. 12, 2012, edition of the Dallas Morning News. SMU law students are among volunteer law students participating.

January 12, 2012

The state fire marshal’s office is in transition, just as an effort is moving forward for a massive, unprecedented review of all arson-related convictions in Texas.

 We don’t sense that means anyone is hitting the pause button, and that’s an encouraging sign. The abrupt resignation of Fire Marshal Paul Maldonado shouldn’t prevent a good-faith, thorough re-examination from taking place, in conjunction with the Innocence Project of Texas.

Everything about the review is uncharted territory for the agencies involved, including the Texas Forensic Science Commission, which triggered the process despite challenges to its authority in arson matters. The effort could make a powerful statement that government agencies can and should responsibly test the bounds of their authority in the pursuit of justice.

It would be the most positive outgrowth of the Cameron Todd Willingham case, which was nearly hijacked more than two years ago for politics’ sake.

  Willingham, as many Texans know, was executed in 2004 despite warnings about the forensic work in his arson-murder conviction, stemming from the deaths of his three daughters in Corsicana. A complaint about the investigation later became the first accepted for review by the newly ensconced Forensic Science Commission, but Gov. Rick Perry, as election season approached, dumped the chairman and two commissioners in 2009. The pace slowed to a crawl, and replacement Chairman John Bradley, Williamson County’s hard-guy district attorney, worked to limit the scope. Then came an attorney general’s opinion last year that said the law never intended arson to be within the commission’s purview in the first place.

Even so, forensic professionals on the panel insisted on knowing whether outmoded methods or junk science were used to put a man on death row, and there were strong indications that they were. The commission’s final Willingham report last fall, under new Chairman Nizam Peerwani, highlighted many weaknesses in the case, but stopped short, for legal reasons, of addressing negligence.

The commission didn’t hesitate to use its moral authority and issue strong recommendations on the “duty to correct” when forensic professionals suspect they erred in a criminal case. Thus came an agreement for the ambitious review now under way.

With the cooperation of the fire marshal’s office, the Innocence Project of Texas has mailed more than 800 questionnaires to inmates convicted on arson-related charges or their representatives. Outreach will continue through prison-theme radio shows out of Houston. Returned material will be forwarded to eight universities or law schools, where student volunteers will help evaluate them for the potential of flawed forensics, much like the screening process to find criminal cases ripe for reversal through DNA analysis. The review ultimately will involve state arson experts, according to plans.

Ironically, things are proceeding under the observation and encouragement of forensic commissioners who supposedly had no business in arson science matters. It’s important that they keep their noses in it.

The review now under way was recommended by the Forensic Science Commission in its final report on the Cameron Todd Willingham case:

The Innocence Project of Texas sent questionnaires to more than 800 prison inmates convicted on arson-related charges.

The material will be reviewed by student volunteers at:

 Southern Methodist University Dedman School of Law

South Texas College of Law

 Texas Tech graduate program in forensic science

 Texas Tech School of Law

Texas Wesleyan School of Law

Texas Wesleyan University

University of Houston-Clear Lake forensic science program

University of Texas at Dallas

Cases involving suspect forensic work will be identified for review by experts at the state fire marshal’s office.