Former Panel Chair Says Perry’s Office Pressured Him On Death Penalty Probe

October 12, 2009 6:11 a.m.

It’s starting to look more and more like Texas governor Rick Perry orchestrated an effort to thwart a state probe into an arson investigation that may have led to the execution of an innocent man.

Sam Bassett — the former chair of the Texas Forensic Science Commission, who Perry declined to reappoint last month — is now saying that Perry’s aides tried to pressure him over the direction of the inquiry his panel was conducting into the steps that led to the 2004 execution of Cameron Todd Willingham for arson. Perry, as governor, signed off on the execution, despite clear evidence that the investigation was flawed.Bassett told the Chicago Tribune over the weekend that he twice was summoned to meetings with Perry’s top attorneys, who said explicitly that they were unhappy with the how the panel’s probe was being conducted. At one meeting, Perry’s lawyers questioned how much it was costing, and asked why the panel had hired a nationally known arson expert — rather than a Texas fire scientist — to look into the case. Bassett added that after that meeting, a staffer from the Texas general counsel’s office started attending commission meetings.

Said Bassett to the Tribune:

I was surprised that they were involving themselves in the commission’s decision-making. I did feel some pressure from them, yes. There’s no question about that.

Nor is Perry’s office being transparent about the issue. Over the weekend, it refused a request from the Houston Chronicle to release documents that would shed light on how — or whether – it reviewed a report from Willigham’s lawyer, sent hours before Willingham alerting the governor to serious flaws in the arson investigation. Perry’s office argued to the paper that staff comments and analyses of the report aren’t public records.

Since the controversy over Bassett’s ouster erupted last month, Perry has pointed out that Bassett’s tenure was expired, and that the governor merely declined to reappoint him. But an advisory lawyers group, as well as several members of the panel itself, had urged Perry to keep Bassett on. And the decision not to reappoint Bassett came just days before the panel was to hear testimony from Craig Beyler, a nationally known arson expert who argued in a report that methods used in the investigation could not support the finding of arson.

The new chair appointed by Perry to replace Bassett, conservative prosecutor John Bradley, called off Beyler’s testimony, saying he and other new panel members needed more time to get up to speed on the case. Bradley has not said whether Beyler’s appearance will be rescheduled.

Masthead Masthead
Founder & Editor-in-Chief:
Executive Editor:
Managing Editor:
Senior Editor:
Special Projects Editor:
Investigations Desk:
Senior Newswriter:
Editor at Large:
General Manager & General Counsel:
Head of Product:
Director of Technology:
Publishing Associate:
Front-End Developer:
Senior Designer: