TX:Forensics report on Willingham case advances good science
Tue Apr 19, 2011 15:42
Forensics report on Willingham case advances good science Posted Monday, Apr. 18, 20110
Members of the Texas Forensic Science Commission last week sidestepped the most incendiary issue facing them, but in doing so they focused attention on important recommendations for improving the criminal justice process.
A report has been expected for months on whether the commission found negligence or professional misconduct by investigators who concluded that Cameron Todd Willingham started the fire that killed his three young daughters in 1991.
The panel's conclusions on that issue could have broad ramifications not just for arson prosecutions in Texas but for the death penalty debate because Willingham was executed in 2004, though he insisted he didn't set the fire.
But commissioners are awaiting an attorney general's opinion on whether they have jurisdiction over cases predating the body's 2005 creation.
As a result, the lengthy report they approved Friday dealt largely with general findings derived from extensive hearings into the Willingham case.
The report reflects careful, thoughtful work by scientists and lawyers dedicated to the proper use of accurate forensics in criminal prosecutions.
The commission's efforts had been overshadowed by claims from competing sides that politics threatened to steer the outcome and by debate over whether Texas wrongly executed Willingham.
But this report, at least, provided evidence that the extended time spent on the case allowed commissioners to hear helpful additional testimony, ask probing questions and thoroughly deliberate difficult issues about developments in arson science.
They concluded science progresses but most active investigators don't have scientific background or needed resources -- and that should change.
The report said "there was no uniform standard of practice for state or local fire investigators in the early 1990s in Texas or elsewhere in the United States." But, since the National Fire Protection Association first published a set of investigation standards in 1992, they have been revised and become more widely accepted.
Texas arson investigators should be trained in the most current techniques and proper application of the scientific method, the commission said.
For instance, much more is known today about determining where a fire started, looking at whether electrical wiring malfunctioned and examining burn patterns to assess whether accelerants were used.
The commission called for a code of ethics; recommended that new data about fire science experiments be effectively disseminated; and said investigators should be better trained in documenting their debris analysis and preserving records.
A debris analysis report from the Willingham case couldn't be found.
Commissioners also recommended that standards be developed to reexamine cases "when science has evolved to create a material difference in the original analysis or result."
The state has an obligation to get things right, especially when there's no going back.
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