Corsicana Daily Sun, Corsicana, Texas

January 21, 2010

Willingham not on science panel agenda


DALLAS (AP) — A state science panel looking into a possible wrongful conviction in a Texas death penalty case is meeting for the first time since Gov. Rick Perry removed several members, but the execution case is not on the agenda.

When it convenes Jan. 29 in Harlingen, the Texas Forensic Science Commission won't resume its probe into the arson finding that led to Cameron Todd Willingham's 2004 execution. Instead, the meeting will focus on formalizing procedures explaining how the group will conduct business, John Bradley, the commission's newly appointed chairman, said Thursday.

The meeting is the first since July. In September, Perry dismissed three members of the commission, two days before it was to consider a report critical of the arson finding that led to the execution. Bradley canceled the subsequent meeting.

The Willingham case is not on the agenda for the upcoming meeting. Nor is Craig Beyler, the renowned fire expert who authored the report in question.

Bradley said he isn't ignoring Willingham, and that the board's investigation of the case could conclude this summer. He said he will assign pending cases, including Willingham, to the nine-member body, which includes a defense attorney and several medical examiners.

He said his top priority is bringing structure to the commission, which he said doesn't have policies in place that answer "simple questions, like 'What is the standard for accepting or rejecting a complaint?'"

But the shift in emphasis from Willingham to procedural matters confirms the fears of those supporting the Willingham inquiry. Barry Scheck, co-director of the Innocence Project, a New York group that focuses on overturning wrongful convictions, called it "an agenda that deflects attention from what everybody wants answered."

And Sam Bassett, the panel's deposed chairman, said it appears the group's new direction "is in my view unnecessarily delaying the investigations we had going."

Willingham was executed for the 1991 deaths of his three daughters in a house fire outside Corsicana.

Perry's appointment of Bradley, a suburban Austin district attorney and conservative ally of the governor, raised concerns that politics would trump science on the forensic panel. Perry is facing a stiff March 2 primary challenge from Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison and GOP activist Debra Medina.

"From the agenda alone, Chairman Bradley has not done what he kept on telling people he would do, which is that he was going to proceed with the Willingham case," Scheck said.

Bassett had hoped to complete a final report on Willingham by this summer "and I think we have the potential for meeting the same deadline," Bradley said.

Also at issue is the location Bradley chose for the upcoming meeting — out-of-the-way Harlingen, a city of more than 60,000 on the Mexican border in the southern tip of Texas. The commission's previous dozen meetings were in Austin, Houston, Dallas and San Antonio — the state's four largest cities.

Bradley said he chose Harlingen because a new commissioner lives there, because of interest from state Sen. Juan "Chuy" Hinojosa and to show diversity in the location of the meetings.

Scheck said the Innocence Project hopes to broadcast the meeting on the Internet.

"There is intense public interest," Scheck said. "We certainly are interested in seeing that the commission ... is not hijacked and its good work undone by a chairman trying to jettison and repudiate all their past work."

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