‘Junk science’ on trial before Senate committee
With almost as much tension and drama as a death penalty court case, plus some politics, the Texas Senate’s Criminal Justice Committee on Tuesday, Nov. 10, grilled the new chairman of a state commission on forensic science.
John Bradley, the Williamson County District Attorney that Gov. Rick Perry named Sept. 30 to chair the commission, is normally accustomed to being the prosecutor, and asking the questions.
But in this hearing, with several death penalty opponents and more than a dozen television and other journalists in the audience, Republican Bradley was on defense more than offense.
The governor had put Bradley in a position where he felt called upon to defend what many Democrats, including state party chairman Boyd Richie, charge was to stall a hearing on a reportedly mistaken death penalty until after the March 2 Republican gubernatorial primary.
Perry had appointed Bradley to head the Texas Forensic Science Commission and replaced two other members two days before an Oct. 2 hearing on the report it had asked arson expert Craig Beyler of Baltimore to prepare.
The report is strongly critical of the arson investigation that led to the death sentence carried out on Cameron Todd Willingham in 2004. Courts at all levels, and Perry, had signed off on the execution.
Investigators who concluded Willingham set the 1991 fire that burned his Corsicana house down, killing his three small children, had relied on faulty science, Beyler’s report says.
But new chairman Bradley postponed the commission meeting indefinitely. He said he and the other new commission members needed time to study the commission and its duties.
Perry, who recently called Willingham “a monster,” has refused to release information about his consideration of efforts to postpone the execution.
Bradley told the committee chairman, Sen. John Whitmire, D-Houston, that the commission must write rules of procedure and adopt professional standards before reaching conclusions on requested investigations.
He also said the commission should work to protect its image, and avoid a reputation for secondguessing law enforcement and court officials.
The commission’s initial inquiries should be behind closed doors, to protect whistleblowers, Bradley said, out of concern the commission’s hearings could be “hijacked” by people pushing other issues.
The commission “is not charged with debating the death penalty,” Bradley said. “It is not charged with determining whether people are guilty or innocent.”
But Whitmire insisted the process should be as open and transparent as possible.
Whitmire, who also chaired the committee when Bradley was its counsel in 1995, pointedly asked if Perry or his staff had given him instructions.
“No,” Bradley declared. He had been promoted from Williamson County assistant district attorney to district attorney by Perry’s appointment in 2001. He has since been elected three times.
Sen. Rodney Ellis, D-Houston, who chairs the New York-based Innocence Project, asked whether politics came into play in Bradley’s appointment because “something would come out to embarrass someone.”
“It’s not my job” to defend any person or party, Bradley said. “I don’t see myself as someone’s pawn.”
Bradley repeatedly refused, to the committee and to reporters later, to say when a decision might come in the Willingham case.
“I’ll give you the answer when the commission makes its decision,” he told the committee.
Ellis has heard from several people “who think it’s a delaying tactic,” he told Bradley. “How long will this take?”
Bradley told Ellis that “when you hold your press conference” with Innocence Project director Barry Scheck, to remember that, as a prosecutor, he lets more people off every year than “Senator Ellis’s New York non-profit.”
“I’m for the death penalty,” Ellis shot back, noting he’d signed off on three executions as acting governor while Senate president pro-tem. “I prefer we get the right person.”
“Sometimes, mistakes are made, and that’s why this commission was created,” Ellis said. He doesn’t want Texas seen nationally as using “junk science to get convictions,” he added.
Perry was within his powers in the abrupt replacement of commission members, Ellis said, and it’s not Bradley’s fault, but there is “no question that a cloud has been put over this commission.”
Democratic gubernatorial candidate Kinky Friedman, who has criticized Perry’s action on the forensic commission, sat quietly through the almost two-hour hearing.
“The system’s really flawed,” Friedman told reporters later. Asked how Bradley might chair the commission, Friedman, dressed in his trademark black cowboy suit and hat, said, “I don’t want to pre-judge him.”
Whitmire said the awkward timing of the appointments put the commission, and the committee, in the political spotlight.
“If the appointment had been made a month earlier,” Whitmire said, “we probably wouldn’t be here today.”