AG Opinon GA 866 is available in Adobe .pdf format. Here is the Opinion Summary:
Although the Forensic Science Commission may conduct investigations of incidents that occurred before September 1, 2005, the law that created the Commission prohibits the FSC from considering evidence that was tested or offered into evidence prior to that date. The Forensic Science Commission’s investigative authority is limited to those laboratories, facilities, or entities that were accredited by the Department of Public Safety at the time the forensic analyses took place. The FSC may not investigate fields of forensic analysis expressly excluded from the statutory definition of “forensic analysis.” Forensic analysis that is neither expressly included nor excluded by the Act or DPS rule, but that falls under the generic definition of “forensic analysis” found in section 38.35(a)(4), is generally subject to FSC investigation, assuming all other statutory requirements are satisfied.
"AG says Forensic Science Commission can’t consider Willingham case, others before Sept. 2005," is Tim Eaton's post at the Austin American-Statesman.
Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott said today that the Forensic Science Commission is prohibited from considering evidence that was tested or offered into evidence prior to Sept. 1, 2005.
The result of the ruling is that commission didn’t have the authority to look into the case of Cameron Todd Willingham, who was convicted in 1992 in the 1991 deaths of his three children, who died in a Corsicana house fire that jurors decided he set. Willingham was executed in 2004.
The AP filing is, "Texas AG: Forensic panel can't consider older evidence in Willingham case," by Christopher Clausen. It's via the Beaumont Enterprise.
Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott ruled Friday that the state's Forensic Science Commission can't consider evidence that was tested or offered into evidence in court prior to Sept. 1, 2005, the official date set by the Texas Legislature.
That blocks the commission's formal review of the case of Cameron Todd Willingham who was executed in 2004 for the 1991 deaths of his three children, who died in a Corsicana house fire that jurors decided he intentionally set.
In 2008, the Innocence Project - which works on behalf of those it believes were wrongly convicted - filed a complaint with the Forensic Science Commission and alleged professional negligence and/or misconduct by arson investigators in the case.
The State Fire Marshal's Office and Corsicana Fire Department objected to the Willingham investigation, saying the commission did not have authority to examine the case. While proceeding with its investigation, the commission asked the Attorney General's Office to decide the question.
The commission ultimately issued a on the Willingham that found arson investigators relied on now-discredited practices to conclude the fire was intentionally set.
The case has both scientific and political angles.
Allan Turner posts, "AG: Forensic panel off the Willingham case," at the Houston Chronicle.
Forensic commissioners, who in April issued broad recommendations for improving fire investigations in Texas, asked Abbott to rule on the extent of their authority.
Abbott responded that the panel lacked authority to review complaints that involved unaccredited forensic laboratories. At the time of the arson investigations, the state had no mechanism for such certifications.
Additionally, Abbott concluded that while the commission may consider cases that occurred before the panel's Sept. 1, 2005 birth, it did not have authority to review evidence that was tested or offered into evidence before that date.
Steve Saloom, policy director for the New York-based Innocence Project, which had asked the commission to review the quality of the arson probes,says responded that Abbott's ruling does not preclude the commission from considering a key assertion in the complaint: The state fire marshal's office failed in its duty to apprise authorities when investigation protocols were dramatically improved.
That responsibility, he said, existed before Sept. 1, 2005, but continues through today.
"Texas attorney general blocks forensic panel from continuing Willingham case," by Yamil Berard is from the Saturday edition of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram.
Current commission Chairman Nizam Peerwani declined to comment on specifics but said the commission will take up the matter at its next meeting.
"What we intend to do is open up the discussion at our September meeting and determine how each commissioner feels about the opinion," said Peerwani, the Tarrant County chief medical examiner.
The opinion gives the commission some latitude for investigating pre-2005 cases. It states that though the time limitation prohibits the commission from taking any action with respect to forensic evidence tested or offered in court before Sept. 1, 2005, there is no limitation on the commission's power to investigate any allegation of professional negligence or misconduct.
Under that provision, said state Sen. Rodney Ellis, D-Houston, the commission should continue its review of the Willingham case.
"Nothing in this AG's opinion prevents the Texas Forensic Science Commission from completing its report and ruling that the fire marshal was negligent in its failure to correct the flawed arson science that was used in numerous arson cases," Ellis said in a statement.
The commission's April report included other broad findings and recommendations based on issues raised by the its inquiry into the Willingham case and the case Ernest Ray Willis, who spent 17 years on Death Row after being convicted of setting a fire that killed two women. Prosecutors dropped the case against Willis after an inquiry suggested that the fire was an accident.
The report found that many forensic investigators in Texas lacked necessary resources or fell short on the scientific background needed for the work. It called for a uniform standard of practice and a code of ethics and said investigators should be better-trained in documenting their analyses and preserving records.
In the Willingham case, a debris analysis report could not be found.
David Grann's September 2009 New Yorker article is noted here. Steve Mills and Maurice Possley first reported on the case in a 2004 Chicago Tribune series on junk science. The December 9, 2004 report was titled,"Man executed on disproved forensics."
The Innocence Project has a Todd Willingham resource page which provides a concise overview of the Willingham case with links to all relevant documents.