By Janet Jacobs
The meeting to review the case of Cameron Todd Willingham Friday has been canceled, following the dismissal of three members of the Texas Forensic Science Commission Wednesday by Gov. Rick Perry.
Perry did not return phone calls Wednesday, however, he told the Associated Press that the members’ terms had expired and replacing them “was pretty standard business as usual.” The commission was formed in 2005 to deal with forensic errors.
Four of the governor’s appointments expired on Sept. 1. Three of those, including the chairman, were told this week they would not be reappointed because the governor was going in a different direction.
John Bradley, district attorney for Williamson County, was named the new commission chairman, replacing Samuel Bassett, an Austin-area defense attorney.
Bradley said the appointment was a surprise, since he hadn’t really heard of the commission before. His first act was to cancel the Friday meeting, in order to give the new board members time to catch up.
“I felt those of us newly appointed to the board didn’t have sufficient time to prepare ourselves as to the role we have on the commission, and asked that the meeting be canceled until such time as we can figure out what we do,” Bradley said.
It was Perry who named Bradley as Williamson County district attorney in 2001.
The forensics commission was scheduled to review and discuss a report Friday from Craig Beyler, a fire expert from Baltimore, Md., who criticized the local and state fire investigations on the Willingham case as unscientific. Beyler submitted his findings Aug. 17.
Bassett received a phone call at 5 p.m. Tuesday informing him of the change, but it was not a complete shock, he said.
“It was a little bit of a surprise, but I knew they were seeking new appointments from the Texas Criminal Defense Attorneys Association,” Bassett said. “I asked if I should or should not attend Friday’s meeting and they said ‘probably not,’ so I assumed I was finished.”
He would not speculate on the timing of the changes.
However, now that he is no longer on the board, Bassett said he felt the Beyler report was credible, and raised significant concerns about the original arson investigation.
“At the same time, we were going to try to get input from other perspectives,” Bassett said. “We wanted to hear from all sides. We weren’t going to stop with the Beyler report.”
He admitted it was disappointing.
“I kind of wanted to finish what I started, but that wasn’t my choice,” Bassett said.
Also replaced on the commission was Aliece Watts, quality director at Integrated Forensics Laboratories, the nation’s only private accredited forensics lab. Taking her seat will be Norma Jean Farley, a Harlingen pathologist.
“I was extremely surprised and extremely disappointed at the timing of the decision,” Watts said, adding: “This was our first case.”
The board members were first appointed in 2005, but only got start-up money two years ago. They spent the first years setting up the forensics office, establishing protocol and then contracting with the experts, such as Beyler. Then, the experts needed time to complete their examinations, Watts explained.
The Willingham case, in addition to being their first, was also the most controversial on the agenda, Watts said.
Tarrant County Criminal District Attorney Alan J. Levy, who was also not reappointed to the board, told the Houston Chronicle Wednesday that the timing was “unfortunate,” considering the visibility of the Willingham case.
“It will raise suspicions whether they are justified or not,” Levy said. “This is a very important case. What this is going to do is raise the temperature, and that will not be a good thing.”
Beyler’s report alleges the Texas investigators didn’t understand fire science, and didn’t use modern methods in the Willingham case. Corsicana investigators and attorneys involved in the original case say they stand by the jury’s verdict, pointing out that Willingham was tried and convicted of murder, not arson.
The case of Cameron Todd Willingham has become something of a reformers’ darling, and groups opposed to the death penalty are touting it as an example of an innocent man wrongly executed. Prior to his death, Willingham appealed his case several times, but the original verdict was upheld. Willingham also asked Gov. Perry for clemency, but that was also rejected.
The Willingham case came to the attention of the forensics commission following a complaint filed by the Innocence Project, a group best known for freeing innocent men using DNA evidence. This week’s changes in the board were disappointing, said Stephen Saloom, policy director with the Innocence Project.
“The commission has taken their job very seriously and operated in accordance with their mission, with respect for Texas law and the proper functioning of any commission, and with objectivity at every step of the way,” Saloom said. “So it’s unfortunate to see these three excellent commission members stripped of their responsibilities.”
He would not speculate on whether or not the change was motivated by politics.
“It certainly seems like it would be hard to say that this move is made with the best interests of the commission’s work in mind,” he said.
Gov. Perry is seeking reelection next year against a current field of five would-be governors, including fellow Republican Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, and Democrat Bob Schieffer, a former ambassador and businessman.
Hutchison’s office had no comment on the new appointments, but Schieffer said the delay needs to be kept to a minimum.
“Opponents and supporters of the death penalty are united in their belief that only the guilty should be executed,” Schieffer said. “If a mistake was made in this case, we need to know it. By the same token, if Mr. Willingham was guilty, we need to know that too.
“The commission needs to reschedule the hearing as soon as possible,” Schieffer continued. “No one in public life should ever be afraid of the truth. In the final analysis, truth is the only thing that serves justice.”
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Perry replaces three members on forensic panel
By Janet Jacobs
- The Willingham Files
Science panel suggests review of arson convictions
A Texas commission no longer allowed to investigate a case where death penalty opponents say a man may have been executed based on a faulty arson investigation recommended Friday that all cases involving people locked up on arson convictions be reviewed.
Thompson honored for Willingham work
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- (12-14-09) Tarrant County medical examiner appointed to forensic commission Gov. Rick Perry has appointed Tarrant County's medical examiner to the Texas Forensic Science Commission, a group shaken up this fall when Perry replaced several members.
(12-02-09) Jurors defend verdict that led to Texas execution
David Martin is sickened by the suggestion that Texas executed an innocent man when Cameron Todd Willingham was put to death for setting a fire that killed his three children.
- (11-10-09) Forensic panel chair offers plans The Texas Forensic Science Commission is not going to debate the death penalty or decide the guilt or innocence of individual cases, said John Bradley
- (11-08-09) GUEST COMMENTARY: A work in progress I am John Bradley, the elected District Attorney in Williamson County and the new presiding officer of the nine-member Texas Forensic Science Commission. I am writing to introduce myself, explain the purpose of the Commission and inform you about the work the Commission now faces.
- (10-27-09) Texas Forensic Science Commission questioned The City of Corsicana is questioning the Texas Forensic Science Commission’s ability to look at the case of Cameron Todd Willingham, since it happened 14 years before the commission was created.
- (10-26-09) Report: Willingham's former wife, 'He confessed' In a story on the Fort Worth Star-Telegram's online newspaper today, Stacey Kykendall, the former wife of executed Cameron Todd Willingham, says he confessed to her before his execution.
Death penalty opponents rally at Texas Capitol
AUSTIN, Texas (AP) - Death penalty opponents, convinced an innocent man was executed in 2004, staged a rally Saturday at the Texas Capitol to call for a moratorium on capital punishment and to highlight the controversial case of Cameron Todd Willingham.
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