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Trial by Fire - Did Texas execute an innocent man?

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The fire moved quickly through the house, a one-story wood-frame structure in a working-class neighborhood of Corsicana, in northeast Texas. Flames spread along the walls, bursting through doorways, blistering paint and tiles and furniture. Smoke pressed against the ceiling, then banked downward, seeping into each room and through crevices in the windows, staining the morning sky.
Buffie Barbee, who was eleven years old and lived two houses down, was playing in her back yard when she smelled the smoke. She ran inside and told her mother, Diane, and they hurried up the street; that’s when they saw the smoldering house and Cameron Todd Willingham standing on the front porch, wearing only a pair of jeans, his chest blackened with soot, his hair and eyelids singed. He was screaming, “My babies are burning up!” His children—Karmon and Kameron, who were one-year-old twin girls, and two-year-old Amber—were trapped inside.
Willingham told the Barbees to call the Fire Department, and while Dia…

Texas: Junk Science Revisited

Forensic commission right to scrutinize bite analysis

The Texas Forensic Science Commission deserves credit for opening another front in the battle to keep junk science out of the courtroom. The initiative came in last week's commission vote to investigate the widely discredited discipline of bite-mark analysis, as used in criminal trials.

The term 'junk science' has become a familiar one to lawmakers and criminal-justice reformers in Austin. In recent years, it's become clear that prosecution experts advancing outmoded theories and pseudoscience - from shoddy arson forensics to use of dog-sniffing lineups - have helped put people behind bars in Texas.

The use of bite-mark analysis is rarely used, but it's been linked to at least 2 wrongful convictions in Texas. Previous investigations of bite-mark anlysis suggest it boils down to dressed-up guesswork masquerading as expertise.

The forensic commision's inquiry into bite-mark testimony has parallels to how the agency began its sweeping look at the state of arson investigations in Texas. That effort concluded that Texas had allowed its standard to slip. It grew out of a complaint to the commission about forensic work against the executed Cameron Todd Willingham, convicted arson-murder in the deaths of his 3 daughters in Corsicana.

The Willingham complaint was brought by the Innocence Project of New York. Last month, the same group filed a complaint on behalf of a Dallas man, Steven Mark Chaney, sentenced to life in prison in 1987 in the throat-slashing murders of a couple who were peddling cocaine in East Dallas. Dental analysis was key. Based on expert testimony, prosecutors told jurors that "there was only a 1-in-a-million chance" that Chaney wasn't the source of bite marks on 1 of the victims, according to the Innocence Project.

The past 28 years have heaped tons of doubt on that statement. It would be a laughable claim, except that a potentially innocent man has spent 28 years behind bars as a result.

Bite marks
Bite marks
A 2009 study of the nation's forensic work by the National Academy of Sciences said that bite analysis is one discipline that grew out of lab tests but has "never been exposed to stringent scientific scrutiny."

Kudos to the Texas Forensic Science Commission for its willingness to apply that scrutiny.

For 2 sessions in a row, Texas lawmakers have enacted laws aimed at rooting out junk science from criminal courtrooms. New laws have made it possible for people to challenge their convictions if they could prove junk science or outmoded theories were used to secure a guilty verdict. Lawmakers also have wideened the spectrum of forensic disciplines that the commission has authority over. The commission had already begun an inquiry into microscopic hair analysis, another discipline whose claims have been under attack.

The push to insist on facts, as opposed to guesswork, from prosecution witnesses is a righteous one. Hocus-pocus has no place in Texas courtooms.

Source: Dallas Morning News, Editorial, August 18, 2015

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