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No tolerance for junk science

Don’t go looking for trouble where bad arson convictions are concerned.

That’s the gist of a West Texas district attorney’s request to Attorney General Greg Abbott — essentially a request for roadblocks to analyzing old arson cases where modern science casts new light on expert testimony used to convict people.

Problem is, the trouble can’t hide. It’s already clear that the justice system has allowed junk science into Texas courtrooms. It would be a travesty to turn a blind eye to the injustice that has caused, and Abbott should not be a party to it.

Criminal justice reformers have made progress to modernize the use of forensic science in Texas, and we’d hate to see that rolled back. To recap:

The Texas Forensic Science Commission was created in 2005, initially a response to shoddy work in the Houston police crime lab. The first complaint the commission accepted for review involved arson work that led to the execution of Cameron Todd Willingham of Corsicana in 2004.

The commission gave the Willingham case a thorough investigation despite complaints that the panel lacked jurisdiction over arson forensics, an argument that Abbott sustained in an opinion in 2011. The commission’s subsequent final report was an artful workaround that discredited the work of the state’s expert arson witnesses against Willingham. At the same time, the commission was emphatic in asserting the forensic community’s “duty to correct” in light of advances in science.

Texas State Fire Marshal Chris Connealy responded by creating a working group of experts to sift through old arson convictions with the help of the Innocence Project of Texas. The working group singled out a handful for scrutiny, and the fire marshal since notified four district attorneys about suspect arson work in cases from their counties.

One of those DAs, Rod Ponton from Fort Stockton, is now invoking technicalities and strained logic to question the working group’s legal standing to weigh in on the cases. This came after the ad hoc group concluded that expert testimony in a 1993 murder conviction by Ponton’s office could not be supported under modern scientific standards of fire investigation.

It doesn’t become the district attorney to try to build a wall against the truth. Opponents of the Willingham inquiry tried that, and the Forensic Science Commission refused to wear the muzzle. It’s a credit to Connealy that he is taking seriously the duty to correct.

This year, state lawmakers struck two more blows for modernized forensic standards. One, they clarified the Forensic Science Commission’s authority to pursue arson cases. Two, they passed a law to give appeals courts new rationale to overturn convictions secured through outmoded forensic work.

Through the court system, the state wields awesome power over an individual’s liberties. There should be no tolerance for any vestiges of junk science to remain in the state’s legal arsenal.

The Dallas Morning News


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