Friday, September 25, 2009

Dallas Morning News Editorial: Perry Ignoring Science

The Dallas Morning News has an editorial today responding to Governor Perry's remarks this week on the Willingham case when he mocked the reports that a finding of arson in the Willingham fire could not be sustained by scientific analysis: "I'm familiar with the latter-day supposed experts on the arson side of it," Perry said, making quotation marks with his fingers to underscore his skepticism. Even without proof that the fire was arson, he added, the court records he reviewed before the execution of Cameron Todd Willingham in 2004 showed "clear and compelling, overwhelming evidence that he was in fact the murderer of his children."

So far, none of the candidates running to replace Perry as governor has made any public remarks on the Willingham case.

The editorial in the DMN points out that the public will have an opportunity to make public comments to the Texas Forensic Science Commission at their meeting next Friday, Oct 2 in Irving. Members of TMN and some of our friends plan to attend that meeting.

Here is the DMN editorial:

When a nationally respected fire engineer rebuked an arson investigation that sent a Texas man to his death, the country took notice.

The question of whether our state executed an innocent man spurred a national discussion, as media outlets from Nightline to The New Yorker explored whether the fiery deaths of Cameron Todd Willingham's three young children were a tragic accident or capital murder. A growing number of experts have rejected the finding that the fire was arson, arguing that investigators relied on folklore and junk science to reach that unsupported conclusion.

Most recently, an expert hired by the Texas Forensic Science Commission issued a scathing report that detailed the many failings of the original arson-murder investigation. Dr. Craig L. Beyler wrote that investigators' conclusions could not be supported by modern science.

Beyler's emphatic rejection of the arson conclusion, coupled with similar findings by other forensic experts, have rightly compelled many to take a hard look at whether Texas got it wrong. On Friday, the Forensic Science Commission will take up Beyler's report and decide how to proceed in this case.

But Gov. Rick Perry has not let expert reports or modern science shake his belief that Willingham must be a murderer. So certain is the governor that he's delivered his own guilty verdict without bothering to wait for the Forensic Science Commission's own conclusions in the case.

Perry flippantly dismissed the findings of "supposed experts." Just in case his sarcasm wasn't evident, he added air quotes with his fingers to dismiss the nationally respected scientists.

The governor says he's seen nothing that would cause him to question this capital murder conviction. That's disappointing.

While it's difficult to say definitively whether a dead man was actually innocent, the prosecution's original case appears to be unraveling. At the very least, Willingham would have sought a new trial and a chance to allow a jury to hear the more scientifically sound findings.

Prosecutors have said that other evidence – such as Willingham's strange behavior at the time of the fire – proves his guilt. But if they could not credibly argue that this was arson, how did he kill his family?

The very foundation of this case has been debunked, so it requires a leap in logic to argue that without proof of arson, Willingham somehow still was guilty beyond a reasonable doubt.

Just as advances in DNA science have shed new light on physical evidence from old cases, improved scientific methods have helped experts understand how fire behaves and have provided new insights into arson investigations. To ignore these advances is irresponsible and risks the possibility of the state making a fatal error.

The governor would be wise to allow the commission to finish its work before making such definitive determinations. And as Perry considers this case, he should not allow reflexive certainty to trump science.Meeting this week

The Texas Forensic Science Commission will meet at 9:30 a.m. Friday at the Omni Mandalay Hotel at Las Colinas. On the agenda: a review and discussion of a new report that rebukes an arson investigation that led to Cameron Todd Willingham's capital murder conviction. The meeting will include a public comment period.

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