Science – like death – has its limits
It is a finding that is at once exculpatory of individuals and damning of a system. In a preliminary determination reached Friday, the Texas Forensic Science Commission said arson investigators used flawed — or at least now-outdated — science in their review of a 1991 Corsicana fire that killed three children and led to capital murder charges against Cameron Todd Willingham, their father.
Williamson County District Attorney John Bradley, the commission chairman, said at the meeting that investigators cannot be second-guessed for adhering to standards in place at the time of the crime.
“We should hold people accountable based on standards that existed when they were working on these things,” he said.
It’s hard to argue with that, just as it’s hard to argue with Bradley’s point that arson science — like much of forensic science — has made tremendous advances in recent years. But the updated arson science is of no use to Willingham because the state killed him in 2004.
At this point, Texans can only hope that Willingham was properly convicted of the crime for which he was executed. Texans also should be reminded by this case and its aftermath that everybody executed in their names is stripped of a right granted all other convicts. Unlike other convicts, who can be freed when updated science sheds new light on old cases, those we ex- ecute lose that potential remedy.
That’s the damning part of the Forensic Science Commission finding in the Willingham case: Science marches on, but it’s frozen in time for the executed. It’s why we believe life without parole is the more fair and humane ultimate sentence.
Bradley, in a Monday interview with the American-Statesman editorial board, rejected the use of the word “flawed” in reference to the science used by investigators in the Willingham case.
But commission member Sarah Kerrigan, a forensic toxicologist and director of Sam Houston State University’s crime lab, said Friday that the panel unanimously concluded “the science was flawed by today’s standard.”
Prosecutors, bolstered by what might have been the best science of the day, successfully argued that Willingham set the fire.
We’re left with the certainty of an execution measured against the uncertainly of evolving science that, as we have learned, can change the outcome of a case we thought was, as the lawyers say, res judicata — a thing decided.
But we’ve learned the hard way that some things never are finally decided, especially when new science is applied to an old case and a wrongly convicted inmate is freed. That causes no pause for Bradley, an accomplished prosecutor who noted that updated science was available prior to Willingham’s execution, and his lawyers waited until the final hours to raise questions about it.
“These post-conviction remedies are completely available to defendants in Texas, including those facing the death penalty, and have been for a couple of decades,” Bradley said, acknowledging, however, that remedies are not available to those who have been executed.
“There is always going to be an imperfect system,” he said. “It doesn’t matter if you are building a car or writing a newspaper article or prosecuting people. All you can do is apply the best methods you have available at the time.”
Cars can be recalled. Newspaper articles can be corrected or subjected to lawsuit. Execution, however, carries a certain finality.
Bradley said death penalty foes operate on the “false premise … (that) if you can’t build a perfect system, you should abandon the criminal justice system … .”
We don’t think anybody is arguing that. All we seek is a system that offers ready remedy for inherent imperfection.
Bradley said the current system gives “every possible opportunity” for those charged with crimes to defend themselves and those convicted of crimes to use new evidence to establish their innocence.
But, as he also told us, science evolves. Please think about that as you mull the death penalty.