In 2005, Texas established a government commission to investigate allegations of error and misconduct by forensic scientists. The first cases that are being reviewed by the commission are those of Willingham and Willis. In mid-August (2009), the noted fire scientist Craig Beyler, who was hired by the commission, completed his investigation. In a scathing report, he 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. He said that Vasquez’s approach seemed to deny “rational reasoning” and was more “characteristic of mystics or psychics.” What’s more, Beyler determined that the investigation violated, as he put it to me, “not only the standards of today but even of the time period.” The commission is reviewing his findings, and plans to release its own report next year. Some legal scholars believe that the commission may narrowly assess the reliability of the scientific evidence. There is a chance, however, that Texas could become the first state to acknowledge officially that, since the advent of the modern judicial system, it had carried out the “execution of a legally and factually innocent person.”
And the initial response from our illustrious chief executive of the state of Texas:
“I’m familiar with the latter-day supposed experts on the arson side of it,” Perry said, making quotation marks with his fingers to underscore his skepticism.
And his most recent response (via Grits for Breakfast):
Perry has ousted the head of the Texas Forensic Science Commission, which had displeased him by soliciting what turned out to be damning expert opinion regarding the Cameron Todd Willingham case (in which supposedly expert arson testimony used to convict Willingham and justify his execution was later debunked by modern science). ... As the new chair, Perry chose (of all people) Williamson County District Attorney John Bradley, who prides himself on being one of the most outspoken proponents among Texas prosecutors of a sort of neoconservative, tough on crime philosophy. The Statesman called Bradley "a tough-on-crime politically connected conservative." ...
Bradley's first act as chair? To cancel a hearing (scheduled for today) where the Commission was scheduled to hear a report from experts they've paid tens of thousands of dollars to analyze the science behind Todd Willingham's conviction. No word on whether or if the public hearing might be rescheduled.
Response to the Wednesday Night Massacre from all quarters has been swift and as merciful as the governor always is himself. Paul Burka of Texas Monthly:
That image of Perry mocking the investigation of his own commission, making quotation marks in the air, is such inappropriate behavior for the subject matter. Couldn’t he just say that a special commission is taking steps to review the case and he intends to see that the evidence will get a full and complete hearing? It’s the same personality trait that we saw on the videotape about the recession.
Let’s call this what it is: a cover-up. The new chairman, Williamson County district attorney John Bradley, is a political ally of Perry’s (see below) who famously tough on crime. It would be a conversion of mythic proportions if he were to agree with the investigators’ criticism. He now controls when the commission will meet, and you can bet that the report will not be heard or discussed in a public forum before the March 2 primary.
The DMN editorial board:
Perry looks like a desperate man with his decision to jettison the chairman of the state's forensic science panel.
The panel's post-mortem look at the Cameron Todd Willingham arson-murder case goes to the heart of Texas justice – including the governor's role in it – and whether an innocent man was railroaded into the death chamber at Huntsville.
Since Perry signed off on the Willingham execution in 2004, his own accountability is at stake. So perhaps it's no surprise that two days before the Texas Forensic Science Commission was to proceed with the case this week, Perry replaced the chairman and set things back.
This has the stink of avoidance for political reasons. It sends the message – intentional or not – that the governor was displeased with the speed and direction of the inquiry.
Rick Casey of the Houston Chronicle:
The politico-scientific hypothesis is simple: Gov. Rick Perry scuttled today's scheduled meeting in Dallas of the Texas Forensic Science Commission because it was sure to produce headlines claiming that in 2004 he authorized the execution of an innocent man.
The Anderson Cooper show from CNN was expected, as well as just about every major news outlet in Texas.
The commission would not have found Cameron Todd Willingham was wrongfully convicted in 1991 of killing his children. The commission is authorized to investigate only whether law enforcement officials and laboratories use science properly.
But it's what the headlines would have said, and Perry is in the middle of a tough re-election campaign.Still, it's a scary hypothesis. If true, the governor of the state that conducts about half the nation's executions deliberately sabotaged a new agency tasked by the Legislature with investigating allegations of faulty science in the state's criminal justice system.
And lastly, Ta-Nehisi Coates at The Atlantic ...
I'm not even surprised. Again, it's very hard for people to admit error. They will lie, cover evidence, kill the messenger before admitting that they're wrong. The higher the stakes, the harder the heart, and the deader the mind.
That's our governor, all right.
Malfeasance of this degree goes far, far beyond Rick Perry's usual hunting grounds: pandering to the teabaggers, advocating for secession, decrying stimulus money only to take it and spend it, whining about hacked webstreams and paying volunteers in his re-election campaign to recruit other volunteers in some weird pyramid scheme.
No, this is not incompetence or hypocrisy. This is sociopathology, and it needs to be excised from our state government like the malignant tumor it has grown into. No later than March 2, 2009.
Charles Kuffner and Eye on Williamson and Burnt Orange have more.