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Remarks of Mary Lou Leary, Principal Deputy Assistant Attorney General
Office of Justice Programs

NIJ Conference
Plenary Panel on the
Cameron Todd Willingham Case
Monday, June 14, 2010
Arlington, VA

       Good morning, and welcome to the plenary panel "Rising From the Ashes - What We Have Learned From the Cameron Todd Willingham Case."

       We are starting this conference with what will be an overarching theme of the next few days, and is certainly a top priority for this administration: a renewed focus on science.

       This panel will feature more than just a fascinating case study about the use of science in criminal justice. In fact, this case can serve as a sort of microcosm of many of the most challenging issues facing our criminal justice system today: the use of forensic sciences, crime scene investigation, eyewitness testimony, and indigent defense, among others.

       Our primary focus during this panel will be the use of forensic sciences. Forensics provides an incredibly valuable tool for criminal justice professionals. Using science in general, and forensics in particular, we are striving to learn more and determined to put that knowledge to use.

       To date, the use of forensics has resulted in 254 exonerations nationwide. All of those cases involved DNA evidence, but we have to remember that forensics is much larger than just DNA analysis. Forensics is a complex and varied field with experts ranging from firearms examiners, to toxicologists to arson scientists.

       Forensics gives us the ability not only to solve current cases but also to learn new lessons from old cases. Looking back, in this instance, provides a heightened sense of how far we have come and a clear vision of where we need to go.

       On our panel today, we have a journalist, an arson expert, a neuroscientist, and an attorney. In their own ways, all of them are applying their knowledge to improve the criminal justice system. They are helping practitioners and the public by creating a detailed analysis of a single case that is filled with lessons. They are taking us into the heart of a fire and dispelling long-standing, and faulty, beliefs. They are helping police officers and detectives understand their unconscious biases and counteract them. And, they are serving as a firsthand example of the importance of revisiting old cases.

       I have no doubt that today's discussion will leave you with a deep sense of the importance of using the best science and the best practices to ensure that justice is always served. The Department of Justice is committed to working with all of you to build a criminal justice system that leaves no room for guess work. The policies, practices, and tools we use must be based on sound science and comprehensive research. And, they must be applied fairly and used carefully.

       Now, to help us learn from this case, I'd like to introduce our panelists.

       David Grann is a staff writer with The New Yorker, and his highly acclaimed article, "Trial by Fire," an in-depth look at the questions surrounding the Willingham case, continues to attract the national spotlight. Using letters, diaries, and interviews with relatives, associates, and friends, the article catalogues the case from initial investigation to trial and from the first appeal to the final plea. Also the author of the New York Times bestseller The Lost City of Z and the new collection of true stories, The Devil and Sherlock Holmes, which includes an updated version of "Trial by Fire," Mr. Grann has won countless awards and is an accomplished crime writer and investigative reporter.

       One of the many experts mentioned in Mr. Grann's article, John Lentini is the President and Principal Investigator with Scientific Fire Analysis. An expert on the science of fire, Mr. Lentini has conducted more than 2,000 fire scene inspections and has served as an expert witness on more than 200 occasions. He is working tirelessly to break down the pervasive mythological indicators that are the hallmark of unscientific fire investigations. His book, Scientific Protocols for Fire Investigation, is one of the foremost texts in the field. Working with both defendants and plaintiffs in product liability and arson cases, Mr. Lentini brings science into the courtroom.

       Dr. Itiel Dror is a cognitive neuroscientist at the University College of London and the Principal Researcher and Consultant with Cognitive Consultants International. His research focuses on the detailed inner workings of the human brain - on how we process information, form perceptions and judgments, and make decisions. Most significantly, he works to make the sometimes abstract, and always complex, science of the human mind accessible for practitioners in the field. His long list of current projects includes two studies sponsored by NIJ to investigate expert error and cognitive difficulty and assess the impact of technological contextual information. He is well known in the field for his groundbreaking research on fingerprint identification.

       Michael Logan Ware is the Chief of the Special Fields Bureau in the Dallas County District Attorney's Office. He joined DA Craig Watkins' office in July 2007 and leads the Conviction Integrity Unit, known as CIU. CIU is the first of its kind in the country. In addition to overseeing the review of more than 400 cases involving DNA evidence, CIU is also investigating cases where evidence points to new or additional perpetrators. Ware's background in criminal defense and his work with the Wesleyan Innocence Project and the Innocence Project of Texas prepared him for this exceptional opportunity to serve as a defense attorney in a prosecutor's office.

       Following remarks by each of our panel members, we will accept questions from the audience.

       Now, I'd like to invite Mr. Grann to start our presentations.

       Thank you all so much for sharing your incredible breadth of knowledge with us. I know many of you have questions, and I'd like to invite you to proceed to the microphones in the aisles to pose your questions.

       Please come to a microphone and tell us your name and affiliation before asking your question. Please also note that this session is being taped and will be posted on the NIJ Web site. An NIJ staff member will have a waiver form for you to sign after you ask your question. If you do not want your question to be included in the taped session, please let the staff member know.

       Thank you, once again, to all of our panelists for helping us more fully understand what is undoubtedly one of the most fascinating and important cases of the last few decades. I think the lessons learned from this case will continue to inform the criminal justice system for years to come.

       We will now have a short break. The next set of panels will begin at 10:30. Thank you.

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