AUSTIN (AP) – The duties and mission of a troubled state panel caught up in the review of a contested arson finding in a death penalty case would be cleared up under legislation approved by the Texas Senate on Friday.

The bill by Sen. Juan Hinojosa, D-McAllen, sets out specific steps for the Texas Forensic Science Commission when investigating and reporting cases. It also gives the commission the authority to initiate investigations rather than wait for a complaint to be filed.

The commission has been embattled in the disputed case of Cameron Todd Willingham, a man executed for setting the fire to his house that killed his three daughters in 1991. The commission was charged with determining whether Texas sent Willingham to his death based on faulty arson evidence. The case has sparked outcries nationwide from activists hoping the case could be used a call to reform methods of forensic science.

Republican Gov. Rick Perry, who denied Willingham a stay of execution, appointed John Bradley as chairman of the committee. Bradley delayed consideration of the case for months, sparking accusations of political motivation and a government cover-up. His re-nomination has been blocked in the Senate by angry Democrats.

Hinojosa’s bill would eliminate two commissioners, leaving a 7-member panel composed of a prosecutor, defense attorney and five other forensic science experts. He said the panel’s new make-up will make the commission geared more toward expert advice and knowledge of forensics while adding expertise of the courtroom.

The legislation affirms that the commission’s role is to determine whether any junk science is used in arson cases, but not to rule on guilt or innocence in the case. A report issued by the commission can’t be used as evidence in criminal or civil court.

It now goes to the House for consideration.

(© Copyright 2011 The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)

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