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September 17th, 2010:

The scientists have rebelled


When seven [members of the Texas Forensic Science Commission] met at a hotel near Dallas’ Love Field, the ostensible goal was to finalize their report on the Willingham case. But from the start, the forensic scientists on the panel fought Bradley at every step. By the end, the tenor of the meeting had changed entirely. What was supposed to have been the end of the Willingham probe now seems just the beginning.

One reform advocate termed the days events “the revenge of the scientists.” Another advocate, Stephen Saloom of the Innocence Project, said the meeting “gives me great hope about where this investigation will lead.”

Indeed, commissioners today talked openly of digging into the systemic problem with arson cases. That’s a subject I’ve been writing about for two years, and it was a remarkable to hear commissioners move beyond Willingham to look at the wider problem. Several commissioners even suggested a wide-ranging re-examination of arson cases in Texas from the past 20 years.

That was a stunning development given how the day started.

The day started, of course, with Rick Perry’s hand-picked fixer attempting to ram through a report, written by himself of course, that took the state Fire Marshall off the hook for its shoddy work in 1991 and declared that there was nothing more to see here. The commissioners had none of it, and in the end carried the day. Read the whole thing, as Saloom says it’ll give you hope that something useful may yet come out of this melodrama.

UPDATE: Grits has more.

Friday random ten: Hope, faith, and belief

The Houston Texans defeated the Indianapolis Colts in their season opener this past Sunday. That was only their second win in 17 attempts against Payton Manning and company, and it’s got the local fans thinking that maybe, just maybe, This Could Be The Year in which the Texans finally make the playoffs. In honor of that, here are ten songs about hope, faith, and believing:

1. Believe Me – The Contrast
2. Don’t Stop Believin’ – Marnie Stern
3. I Believe In You – Frank Sinatra with Count Basie
4. I Cannot Believe It’s True – Phil Collins
5. Reason To Believe – Rod Stewart
6. There’s Hope For You – William Elliott Whitmore
7. Faith – Tufts Beelzebubs
8. Keeping The Faith – Billy Joel
9. Leap of Faith – Bruce Springsteen
10. Running On Faith – Eric Clapton

What do you have faith in this week?

Entire song report: Started with “Mercy Mercy Me”, by Marvin Gaye. Finished with “Money for Nothing”, by Big Daddy, which is almost but not quite exactly unlike the Dire Straits original. You like cover songs, especially ones done in a different style than the original? Go find yourself some Big Daddy. Anyway, that was song #3407, for 98 tunes this week.

Ripping vinyl report: Took the week off. Hopes to be back next week.

Fire marshal clings to Willingham arson report

Oh, give it up, already.

The State Fire Marshal’s Office stands behind its controversial conclusion that Cameron Todd Willingham started the house fire that killed his three children in 1991, contradicting arson experts and scientists who insist the agency relied on bad science in its investigation.

In a pointed letter to the Texas Forensic Science Commission, which is nearing the end of a contentious review of the Willingham arson investigation, Fire Marshal Paul Maldonado defended his agency’s handling of the case that led to Willingham’s execution in 2004.

In July, the commission announced a tentative finding that investigators employed “flawed science” — including now-debunked beliefs that certain fire behaviors point to arson — to conclude that Willingham intentionally set fire to his Corsicana home.

But Maldonado said his agency’s investigation remains valid, even after modern, scientific arson standards are applied.

“We stand by the original investigator’s report and conclusions,” Maldonado said in his Aug. 20 letter to the commission. “Should any subsequent analysis be performed to test other theories and possibilities of the cause and origin of the fire, we will of course re-examine the report again.”


Maldonado, who became state fire marshal in 2004 after rising to assistant chief for the Austin Fire Department, acknowledged that his agency used many of the principles and practices espoused by NFPA 921 when Vasquez — who died in the mid-1990s — investigated the Willingham fire.

Attached to Maldonado’s letter was a point-by-point analysis showing that Vasquez’s arson finding can be supported by NFPA 921, which says melted aluminum, burn patterns, broken glass and other fire phenomena “may also be caused by ignitable liquids.”

The attachment also suggested that commission members take into account that Vasquez’s conclusions were based on a personal review of the fire scene and interviews with Willingham, who offered conflicting accounts of the fire.

I know it’s hard to admit to a mistake, but this is just sad. Many, many experts have examined the Willingham evidence, and none of them have agreed with this assessment. One might also argue that the “personal review” of the fire scene isn’t an advantage, as it may have made the investigators at the time too close to it. Three little kids died in that fire – that’s got to have an effect on the people who were right there to examine the scene. What Willingham said in the interviews also shouldn’t matter as far as the physical evidence goes. What he says may be confirmed or contradicted by what is found at the scene, but it can’t be determinative. That’s a job for the prosecutor, not the investigator.

The Commission meets today to finally discuss the Willingham case. They’ve already heard some grievances from a couple of Senators.

State Sens. Rodney Ellis, D-Houston, and Juan “Chuy” Hinojosa, D-McAllen, sent a letter Monday to the commission with a list of grievances about the way it has conducted the Willingham investigation. The senators wrote that the process has been too secretive, that it has been diluted and that the primary question in the case has not been addressed. They wrote: “It appears that you are not interested in looking at the ‘big picture’ component of this complaint: Did the State Fire Marshal commit professional negligence or misconduct if it failed to inform the courts, prosecutors, the Board of Pardons and Parole, and the Governor that flawed arson science may have been used to convict hundreds or thousands of defendants?”

The senators wrote that more than 225 people each year are sent to Texas prisons on arson convictions, and more than 700 current prisons are serving time for arson. “Texans need to be confident that the flawed science used to convict and execute Mr. Willingham wasn’t used to wrongly imprison many others,” they wrote.

We ought to know once and for all if the Commission will do the job it’s supposed to do or if it needs to be taken back to the Lege for an overhaul. I fear a whitewash is coming, but at least that will serve to clarify the issue. And who knows, maybe we’ll see another revolt by Commission members. Stranger things have happened. Dave Mann has more.

True culture warriors never sleep

There’s no possible way that this can end well.

The [State Board of Education] will consider a resolution next week that would warn publishers not to push a pro-Islamic, anti-Christian viewpoint in world history textbooks.

Members of the board’s social conservative bloc asked for the resolution after an unsuccessful candidate for a board seat called on the panel to head off any bias against Christians in new social studies books. Some contend that “Middle Easterners” are increasingly buying into companies that publish textbooks.

A preliminary draft of the resolution states that “diverse reviewers have repeatedly documented gross pro-Islamic, anti-Christian distortions in social studies texts” across the U.S. and that past social studies textbooks in Texas also have been “tainted” with pro-Islamic, anti-Christian views.

I don’t even know what to say. This is a train wreck wrapped in a freak show inside a clown car. In the name of sanity, go throw a few bucks at Rebecca Bell-Metereau and Judy Jennings. This crap needs to end. The Trib has more on that.

It must be noted, as Abby Rapoport does, that the SBOE actually has some serious business on the agenda as well.

Each year, the board determines what percentage of the $22-billion fund’s returns will get paid out. This time around, we’re expecting a state budget shortfall of $18 billion—or possibly higher. Every dollar the board sends out means a dollar the legislature doesn’t have to spend. That frees up general revenue funds in the rest of the state budget. The board had initially said it would give somewhere between 1.5 and 3.5 percent. “I think the one and a half percent caught some folks’ attention,” Bradley who chairs the board’s financial committee, told me. Now, he says, the staff recommends the board send between 3 and 3.5 percent.

That’s as much as $1.2 billion over two years.

Then there’s another $1.1 billion that the board owes schools—”catch-up” money from last cycle, when the fund got too low to pay out.

There’s likely going to be a fight though. One of the chief purposes of the fund is to buy materials like textbooks. However, as part of its proposed budget cuts, the Texas Education Agency has offered to postpone buying English/Language Arts books that were expected to arrive in the fall of 2011. And you might remember the board already postponed asking for science textbook funding.

And for all you people who like pre-k: pre-k materials are part of this block of funding. So it’s not just grade school and high school kids who might have to go without. The board members will almost definitely argue with the agency and the commissioner about the proposed cuts.

That’s definitely worth watching. Hopefully, it will not get lost in the coverage of the craziness.

Progress on food stamps

Good news.

With hundreds of new workers on board, Texas has dramatically improved its speed and accuracy processing food stamp applications, Health and Human Services Executive Commissioner Tom Suehs [told] state lawmakers [last week].

But he’ll also tell the joint gathering of the Senate Health and Human Services Committee and the House-Senate panel overseeing the eligibility system that he needs more resources, including more workers.

“Yes, we’ve turned it around,” Suehs told the American-Statesman on Tuesday. But he added: “We still have a long way to go to maintain it there. This thing is still in a precarious situation.”

In August, Texas processed 93.5 percent of applications within the required 30 days, compared with 58.6 percent in September 2009, according to the commission.


In the past year, the commission has added 864 workers to determine eligibility and enroll Texans for food stamps and Medicaid, bringing to 8,380 the number of staffers. The commission has also revamped worker training and stationed workers in office lobbies to handle certain questions so that not everyone has to wait in line.

“There’s no doubt that things have significantly improved,” said Celia Hagert of the Center for Public Policy Priorities, which advocates for low- and middle-income Texans. “It’s clear evidence of what a better funded and staffed eligibility system is capable of.”

I could crab about how we got into this mess in the first place and how it took threats of federal action for the state to take it seriously enough to address, but I’ll skip that this time and just offer my kudos to Tom Suehs for getting this done. There’s still a long way to go, and we may never truly undo the damage of the failed privatization scheme that left HHSC in such a mess, but so far so good.

Texas blog roundup for the week of September 13

The Texas Progressive Alliance salutes the Houston Texans for vanquishing their nemesis the Colts in the season opener as it brings you this week’s blog roundup.