By JEFF CARLTON
Associated Press Writer
DALLAS (AP) — Gov. Rick Perry’s surprise appointment of a conservative ally to lead a panel investigating whether Texas executed an innocent man has raised the question of whether politics will trump science on the state’s forensics board.
Williamson County District Attorney John Bradley has vowed to “let the facts lead us wherever they do.” But his first move as the ranking member of the Texas Forensic Science Commission was to cancel a meeting set for Friday, citing a need to study the issues confronting the panel.
The board was about to consider a report critical of an arson finding that led Cameron Todd Willingham to be executed for the deaths of his three daughters.
Bradley’s appointment came as Perry removed three members of the board, including its leader, Austin attorney Sam Bassett. Bradley is the first elected official on the panel since its inception in 2005.
Keith Hampton, an Austin defense attorney and vice president of the state’s Criminal Defense Lawyer Association, said the commission is now tainted by considerations that have little to do with science.
“Ideology and politics,” Hampton said. “The two worst possible things we want anywhere close to science.”
Jeff Blackburn, a Lubbock attorney and the chief counsel for the Innocence Project of Texas, echoed that concern. “At least there won’t be any illusions as to whether this will be an impartial body,” he said.
Bradley, a Republican who was appointed to the DA job by Perry in 2001, has won re-election three times in Williamson County, home to many of Austin’s suburbs. Voted this year as the state’s top prosecutor by his peers, he is known as a tough-on-crime DA and passionate advocate for police and prosecutors.
“I think we’re bringing in some people who are very capable,” Perry said. “John Bradley is very well known and a very good public servant through the years.”
The DA said he recognizes he has parachuted into a contentious issue. The report before the commission concludes that the arson finding in the Willingham case was scientifically unsupported and investigators at the scene of the 1991 fire had “poor understandings of fire science.”
That report bolstered arguments from advocacy groups that Willingham was innocent. Perry was governor when Willingham, 36, was executed in 2004.
“As a prosecutor and an elected official, I have had some experience with being handed hot potatoes,” Bradley said. “That experience tells me I shouldn’t get too distracted by the issue of the moment.”
Those who oppose his appointment, however, question whether he will entertain an argument that Texas executed an innocent man. Hampton, who has sparred with Bradley for 20 years, said he is tough on those who oppose him.
“He’s no dummy. He’s a smart guy, savvy, political,” Hampton said. “But he is a prosecutorial ideologue.”
Bradley has a history of opposing efforts by those in the state’s criminal justice reform movement.
For example, he dismissed the Dallas DA’s talk of pursuing criminal actions against prosecutors who intentionally withhold evidence, calling it an overreaction. And he said it was inappropriate for a court to accept a case in which the family of a wrongly convicted man who died in prison was seeking a formal exoneration. Bradley said he was sympathetic but thought it was an issue for a grand jury.
For his part, Bradley said he will be transparent in his role on the commission. And he said he has one wish for those questioning his appointment.
“I hope that people will be patient,” he said.
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By JEFF CARLTON
- The Willingham Files
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