By JIM VERTUNO
Associated Press Writer
AUSTIN (AP) — Gov. Rick Perry said Thursday that he defends his shakeup of a state arson board just days before it was to review a report that concluded a faulty investigation led to a man’s 2004 execution.
Perry called the move “pretty normal protocol” and said it is premature to declare the fatal fire Cameron Todd Willingham was convicted of setting as not being arson. Willingham’s three young daughters died in the 1991 blaze.
On Wednesday, Perry replaced the head of the Texas Forensic Science Commission and two of its eight other board members. The panel was scheduled to meet Friday to review a report on the arson findings that led to Willingham’s capital murder conviction and execution.
The panel’s new head, Williamson County District Attorney John Bradley, canceled Friday’s meeting. It hasn’t been rescheduled.
“What’s happening is we’re following pretty normal protocol,” Perry said at a news conference for his re-election campaign. “Those individuals’ terms were up so we’re replacing them. That’s not ... out of the ordinary.”
Perry, a Republican, has been governor since 2000 and is seeking a third full term in office.
Willingham, 36, was convicted of setting the fire that killed 2-year-old Amber and 1-year-old twins Karmon and Kameron on Dec. 23, 1991, in the family’s Corsicana home.
Willingham maintained his innocence, even from the death chamber. A state fire marshal, who also is now deceased, and a local fire investigator ruled it was arson. They testified that a liquid accelerant was ignited and the blaze was set to prevent anyone from rescuing the children. The investigator still stands by the findings.
The Forensic Science Commission hired Baltimore-based arson expert Craig Beyler to study the case. Beyler concluded the arson findings were scientifically unsupported and that investigators at the scene had “poor understandings of fire science.”
Beyler’s report has bolstered arguments from advocacy groups that Willingham was innocent and wrongly executed.
The state commission doesn’t have the power to rule on Willingham’s guilt or innocence but was expected to release a report next year on the validity of the arson investigation.
“They’re going to take a look at any new information that anybody has,” Perry said. “To make a statement now that it was not arson is a little premature.”
Perry said it was better to appoint new members before they started work on the report.
“If you’ve got a whole new investigation going forward, it makes a lot more sense to put the new people in now and let them start the full process rather than having people in there for a short period of time and then replacing them,” Perry said.
“If we’re trying to find truth and get to the crux of the issue here, then I would suggest folks allow the process to work,” he added.
Austin attorney Sam Bassett, who was replaced by Bradley as the panel’s head, called the delay in the case “a big letdown.”
“It was a big disappointment because everyone on the commission has put so much work into not just this case but the entire work of the commission,” Bassett said.
Associated Press writers April Castro in Austin and Jeff Carlton in Dallas contributed to this report.
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By JIM VERTUNO
- The Willingham Files
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