Texas put in uncomfortable spotlight

September 9, 2009 5:36:05 PM PDT
On Wednesday in Washington, senators took a tough look at Texas justice. They are concerned bad science is getting into America's courtrooms. And they used two Texas examples to make their point. More than a third of all U.S. capital punishments are handed down in Texas. So the possibility that an innocent man was killed here is getting nationwide attention. Some here in Texas say we can't solve the problem on our own.

"An innocent man may've been executed for a crime he did not commit," pointed out Senators Patrick Leahy (D) of Vermont.

An 18-year-old north Texas arson case and the Houston Police Department's crime lab issues put the Lone Star State in an uncomfortably lonely spotlight. Senators are asking if they need to get more involved to guarantee junk science doesn't come into the courtroom.

"We need to make sure that we make it plain that we understand that mistakes and errors were made and we are taking the appropriate steps," said Houston Police Department Chief Harold Hurtt.

In Houston, lawyers are still reviewing convictions based on potentially flawed science from Houston's crime lab. It's too late to change the case of Cameron Willingham, a Corsicana father executed in 2004 for reportedly setting a fire that killed his three children in 1991.

Today, five years later, a scientist hired by the state of Texas says an arson claim could not be supported.

"This may the one. This may be the case where it can clearly be documented that an innocent person had been executed," said Senator Rodney Ellis (D) of Houston.

The evidence led the New Yorker Magazine to recently ask if Texas will admit it was the first state to execute an innocent man. It's a question echoed by the New York Times and the Chicago Tribune, but not by Governor Perry's office, which could not tell us if Perry had been briefed on the recent findings.

"It is very difficult for Texas to police itself on the death penalty," said Senator Ellis.

That leads us to Washington for Wednesday's hearing.

"I found the article extremely disturbing and the findings of the National Academy's report terrifying," said Senator Al Franken (D) of Minnesota.

Peter Neufeld told Senator Franken a death penalty moratorium is in order nationwide. Chief Hurtt told senators national science standards may be enough to guarantee past mistakes won't be made again.

"We need the ability to increase capacity to train all the scientists in the state as well as develop a facility so that we can have the capacity to do more as far as DNA," said Chief Hurtt.

Chief Hurtt also told us after the meeting that forensic science issues need more intervention but can also be solved with more ethics training in law enforcement, something he's already doing here with the Houston Police Department.

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