Dr. Nizam Peerwani, the newly appointed Chair of the Forensic Science Commission, gets profiled in the Trib. Most of the story is about the history of the Willingham case, which the Commission finally sort of dealt with last year.
With a smile and a friendly laugh, Dr. Nizam Peerwani offers coupons for free autopsies to visitors to his office.
Death and the science of it have dominated Peerwani’s 30-year career in the Tarrant County medical examiner’s office. Now, Peerwani is taking on a very live controversy as chairman of the Texas Forensic Science Commission: the continuing investigation into the arson science that led to the conviction and 2004 execution of Cameron Todd Willingham.
“His background and his temperament give him the unique ability to make sure the commission is focused on the science of forensics instead of the science of politics,” said Sen. Rodney Ellis, D-Houston, who helped created the nine-member commission in 2005.
In April, three years after it began its investigation, the commission published some of its findings. It made significant recommendations to improve future arson investigations, but did not decide whether the Willingham arson investigators were professionally negligent, which was its original charge.
Commissioners declined to rule on that until the Texas attorney general decides whether the panel has jurisdiction to investigate cases including Willingham’s that occurred before its creation in 2005. A ruling is expected by the end of this month.
Peerwani said he agreed with experts who testified before the board that the arson science used to convict Willingham was seriously flawed. But asked whether Willingham was guilty or innocent, he was less definitive. “There were other issues,” he said of what lead to Willingham’s conviction. “There were eyewitness accounts; there were hospital and doctor testimony given and investigative findings.”
Barry Scheck, co-founder and co-director of the Innocence Project, said he was heartened by Peerwani’s appointment. Early on in the Willingham investigation, Peerwani agreed with other experts that not only was the science faulty but that forensic examiners had an ethical duty to inform prosecutors of potential flaws in their work.
That, Scheck said, gets at the heart of the matter. When the Innocence Project asked the commission to review the Willingham case, the main purpose was to establish whether the science used was faulty. And if it was, to find other cases in which the same faulty science might have led to wrongful convictions.
If the attorney general rules that the commission cannot review older cases, he said, an unknown number of inmates convicted based on so-called junk science will have little opportunity to seek justice.
“It would be extremely troublesome,” Scheck said. “We’d be back to square one.”
Obviously, almost anyone would have been an improvement over professional hack/Perry toady John Bradley, but the reactions from folks like Scheck and Sen. Ellis are especially encouraging. This really is supposed to be about evaluating procedures to ensure that they’re rigorous and not a bunch of handed-down folk tales. If the FSC pursues that, and doesn’t get needlessly blocked from reviewing old cases, it will be a major step forward, if only to get us back to where we were always supposed to be.