Eighteen months ago, Texas Governor Rick Perry appointed Williamson County DA John Bradley to head up the Texas Forensic Science Commission. It was like turning over the Vatican to Richard Dawkins. Bradley, like most Texas prosecutors, thinks forensic scientists have one role: helping the state convict bad guys; Perry’s atheist pope likes forensic testimony crafted to the needs of the prosecution.
Governor Perry put Bradley in charge of the TFSC to keep the Cameron Todd Willingham debacle out of the headlines during his primary fight with Kay Bailey Hutchinson. Perry also tried to stack the commission with people who share Bradley’s worldview, but things haven’t worked out to the governor’s liking. As Rick Casey demonstrates in this informative column in the Houston Chronicle, Bradley is unlikely to receive Senate confirmation.
Senate may save science from politics
By RICK CASEY
March 6, 2011, 4:29PM
It may surprise some folks in the more liberal parts of the nation, but while Texas leads the nation in death penalty executions, it also took an important step in 2005 to lead the nation in improving the science that is used to convict suspects.
The Texas Forensic Science Commission was created to police the state’s forensic science practices in the wake of the widely publicized scandals at the HPD crime lab. The seven scientists on the nine-member panel have worked vigorously to keep politics out of the panel and use it to promote more professionalism in a field that hardly works like CSI makes it seem.
But politics have plagued the commission for 18 months — ever since Gov. Rick Perry appointed Williamson County DA John Bradley to head the commission in an obvious political act.
Now it is time for the Senate to confirm, by a two-thirds vote, that appointment. Houston Sen. Rodney Ellis believes he has the votes to remove Bradley. Texans should hope he’s right.
Just days after Perry appointed Bradley, the commission was scheduled to hear testimony from one of the nation’s top arson scientists.
The scientist, Craig Beyler, had already written a report saying the arson investigation that helped lead to the conviction and execution of Cameron Todd Willingham for setting his house on fire to kill his three small children was egregiously unscientific and wrong. Beyler concluded that the arson evidence did not come close to proving the fire was not accidental.
Perry was heading into what was presumed to be a tough primary fight against U.S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, and Beyler’s findings were particularly sensitive because Perry’s office had been warned that the arson science in the Willingham case was abysmal but had ignored a last-ditch request to postpone his execution so that the issue could be addressed.
Bradley would succeed in delaying Beyler’s testimony not only until after the primary but until after the general election.
But Bradley has shown himself to have a much more ambitious agenda than delaying one case.
It is, simply put, to cripple the commission.
He held his first meeting in Harlingen to (successfully) discourage press coverage. He began the meeting by violating the state’s Open Meetings Act, barring a film crew from the small conference room he had rented. A call to the Attorney General’s Office forced him to let the crew in.
More importantly, he presented the commission with a set of by-laws that would have given him virtually total control by allowing him to set up a group of committees, select their members and chairmen, and decide which committees handled which issues and investigations.
The scientists, no dummies, blocked him.
Later, Bradley would embarrass the commissioners.
They were trying to educate the sometimes sloppy media and the public that their job was not to judge Willingham’s guilt but to determine the quality of the “science” used to convict him.
In an interview, Bradley, talking like a prosecutor rather than the chairman of a scientific commission, called Willingham “a guilty monster.”
In July, he presented the commission with an unsigned memorandum finding that it didn’t have jurisdiction over the Willingham case and claimed it was “drafted, reviewed and edited through the combined efforts of the two members of the FSC who are lawyers, counsel for the Attorney General’s Office.”
When that was exposed as untrue, Bradley, who couldn’t quite admit that he wrote the memo, joined in an 8-0 vote rejecting its conclusions.
Bradley’s attitude toward the use of science was demonstrated back in 2002 when, on an Internet bulletin board for Texas prosecutors, he responded to a prosecutor who wanted a suspect to waive any further DNA testing as a condition of a plea bargain.
“A better approach might be to get a written agreement that all the evidence can be destroyed after the conviction and sentencing. Then, there is nothing left to retest.”
The reason it should be destroyed is that if the defendant later shows evidence he is innocent, he might get his earlier agreement set aside.
“Innocence, though, has proven to trump most anything,” Bradley wrote, as if this is a problem.
I asked him what interest the state has in destroying evidence, especially when scores of Texas convicts have been found innocent based on DNA testing after serving years in prison.
He said we need finality and painted a picture of thousands of inmates filing endless appeals.
That’s an arguable rationale for a district attorney, but it is an untenable philosophy for the chairman of the Forensic Science Commission.