Texas Governor Stymieing Panel Probing Flawed Death Penalty Case?

ZUMA Press/Newscom

Even by the standards of Texas’s enthusiasm for state-sanctioned killing, this is pretty shocking…

A Texas scientific panel has been looking into possible missteps in a criminal investigation of a 1991 arson case which led to the execution of Cameron Todd Willingham. A recent New Yorker story about the case laid out compelling evidence that Willingham may well have been wrongly put to death.The panel, the Texas Forensic Science Commission, was scheduled to hear today from a nationally recognized arson expert it had hired, Craig Beyler, who had last month released a report which called the original probe slipshod.

But on Wednesday, Texas governor Rick Perry abruptly removed three members of the commission. In their place, he appointed a new chair with a reputation as a hardline conservative prosecutor, who promptly canceled the hearing at which Beyler was to testify.

Perry, a Republican, said that the terms of the ousted members were expiring, and called the move “pretty standard business as usual.” But the ousted chair, Sam Bassett, told a reporter that he had heard from Perry’s staffers that they were “concerned about the investigations we were conducting.” And Bassett left no doubt that he had been willing to let the chips fall where they may, declaring: “In my view, we should not fail to investigate important forensic issues in cases simply because there might be political ramifications.”

What political implications? Before Willingham’s execution, Perry had been asked by defense lawyers to grant a stay, based on a report by another arson expert which concluded that “there is not a single item of physical evidence in this case which supports a finding of arson.” Willingham’s lawyers wanted a 3-day reprieve to give the court time to review the report. But Perry, in line with a prior decision by the state’s clemency board, had denied the request.

In rejiggering the scientific panel, Perry appears to have acted hastily. The new chair, John Bradley, said the first time he had learned of his appointment was the day it was announced, when he got a call from Perry’s office. He said he hadn’t asked for the post. Bradley also said he cancelled the Beyler hearing because it would be held too soon for him and other new panel members to sort through Beyler’s report and other materials, and added that he didn’t know whether it might be rescheduled.

Perry is in a tough fight for reelection with Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison. And she’s already trying to make hay out of the move. “Why you wouldn’t at least have the hearing that the former member suggested, to find out what the facts are, when a man has been executed and now the facts are in dispute – just like DNA has given more tools to determine the facts,” she told the Dallas Morning News. “I am strongly for the death penalty, but always with the absolute assurance that you have the ability to be sure – with the technology that we have – that a person is guilty.”

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