In the wake of scientific evidence documenting that the State of Texas executed an innocent man when it put to death Cameron Willingham in 2004 for the deaths of his three children in a house fire, Texas Governor Rick Perry has stirred more controversy and criticism by replacing members on a commission reviewing the arson investigation which led to Mr. Willingham’s conviction.
Governor Perry, who refused clemency for Mr. Willingham and signed his execution order in 2004, replaced the head of the Texas Forensic Science Commission and two of its eight other members just two days before the commission was to hear testimony from nationally-known arson expert Craig Beyler.
Mr. Beyler was retained by the commission to investigate the Willingham case. His report –quoted at length in The New Yorker in September – concluded that “investigators in the Willingham case had no scientific basis for claiming that the fire was arson, ignored evidence that contradicted their theory, had no comprehension of flashover and fire dynamics, relied on discredited folklore, and failed to eliminate potential accidental or alternative causes of the fire.” Their approach, he said, seemed to deny “rational reasoning” and was more “characteristic of mystics or psychics.”
In 2004, Governor Perry denied Mr. Willingham a reprieve even after a detailed report by a different arson expert said the evidence was flimsy and inconclusive.
The Forensic Science Commission was established in 2005 to investigate allegations of scientific negligence or misconduct in criminal cases. According to news reports, the commission has been reviewing facts in the Willingham case since 2008 and was scheduled to hear testimony from Beyler about his findings on October 2, 2009.
Governor Perry’s removal of the three commission members led to the cancellation of the October 2, 2009, meeting by the new commission head, Williamson County district attorney John M. Bradley, a Republican known as a vigorous advocate for prosecutors in Texas. Mr. Bradley replaced Sam Bassett, an Austin defense attorney, as chair of the commission. Governor Perry said the commissioners’ terms were up, so they were replaced.
The commission’s final report on the Willingham case was expected early next year, but Governor Perry’s personnel changes may postpone that deadline back indefinitely. The Austin American-Statesman opined, “[I]t is not overstating the case to say the future of the death penalty in Texas – and perhaps nationwide – could be determined by this relatively new, pretty-much-unknown state panel.”