COMMENTARY: "State fire marshall hell bent on improvement," by Rodger Jones, editorial writer, the Dallas News, published on January 10, 2013.
GIST: "I talked on the phone for awhile with Texas State Fire Marshal Chris Connealy for today’s editorial on bad arson cases. He impressed me with his determination to set things right that need setting right. Connealy got the job just last spring, in the wake of rough publicity that washed over the agency from the Cameron Todd Willingham case. He was a suburban fire chief near Austin at the time. With his new job, he inherited a long list of recommendations from the Texas Forensic Science Commission on how to shape up the fire marshal’s office. Mind you, the commission has no legal authority over the SFMO, so the recommendations are not imperatives, in a bureaucratic sense. And they’re not a simple little checklist that the agency can figure out to do on the side. Achieving a systematic review of potentially faulty arson cases is a huge undertaking. It’s certainly the right thing, considering the lessons of the Willingham case......... The trickiest part of following through on Willingham recommendations is the re-evaluation of old cases. Starting Tuesday afternoon in Houston, and continuing yesterday, Connealy sat down with a panel of six experts, mostly from outside the office. Called the Science Advisory Working Group, it includes a medical examiner, fire scientist, lawyer, arson investigator, etc. Also in the room were lawyers from the Innocence Project of Texas, which helped screen the cases and offered some of their own. This assemblage had no statutory force, no procedural framework — just a group of well-meaning volunteer professionals who sense that Willingham’s is far from the only case out there where junk science was used to convict. They probably will agree on certain cases that need more scrutiny and deserve an updated arson report that would end up in court. There is no rulebook for all this; participants are making it up as they go, yet I’d say they’re heading in the right direction, with the lessons of Willingham in mind. “We need to make sure that never happens again,” Connealy said."
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