New Head of Forensic Science Panel Takes On Arson Case
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.
Willingham was convicted of setting the 1991 fire that decimated his Corsicana home and killed his three young daughters. Shortly before he was executed, an internationally known arson scientist retained by defense attorneys reviewed the evidence used to secure his conviction and concluded it was flawed. Both the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles and Gov. Rick Perry declined to stay the execution.
Until the forensic science commission took the case in 2008, it had operated largely in obscurity. Then, in 2009, as the commission was set to hear a damning report from another expert it had hired to do an independent analysis, Perry abruptly appointed three new members and dismissed the sitting chairman. The governor’s critics called the move political meddling. Perry said he simply replaced commissioners whose terms had expired, and he rejected the work of those who had questioned the arson findings as that of “latter-day supposed experts.”
The governor appointed Williamson County District Attorney John Bradley to lead the commission, an outspoken conservative with a tough law-and-order reputation. Perry appointed Peerwani to the board shortly thereafter.
The pace of the Willingham investigation slowed, frustrating some lawmakers and infuriating Willingham’s lawyers at the New York-based Innocence Project, which Ellis chairs. After Bradley called Willingham a “guilty monster,” his critics questioned whether he could objectively evaluate the case.
When Bradley’s nomination to continue leading the commission came before the Texas Senate this year, he could not muster enough support.
Bradley said his critics’ agenda was simply to aid the project financially. “In almost any normal world, that is an ethical conflict of interest that should diminish their credibility on the subject of leadership,” he wrote in an email to The Texas Tribune.
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.”
Through all the political wrangling over the case, Peerwani said his focus has been on ensuring that science is used appropriately in the criminal justice system.
“We shouldn’t be absolutely relying on science, because science has also got flaws,” he said.
Ellis said he is optimistic the new chairman will move the commission past the political pressures that have beleaguered its work. “The reason for creating the commission is to make sure in Texas we’re using forensics properly,” he said. “We ought to go where the science takes us.”
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.”