Texas governor shakes up panel probing 2004 execution

A family photo shows Cameron Todd Willingham with his wife, Stacy, and daughters Kameron, Amber and Karmon.
Texas Gov. Rick Perry has shaken up a state commission that is probing whether a man executed in 2004 belonged on death row. Perry’s move forces the commission to delay a scheduled hearing on the case.

The governor acted two days before the commission was to hear from an expert who has cast doubt about the quality of the arson investigation that helped convict Cameron Todd Willingham of murder in the deaths of his three daughters in a fire at their home. Death-penalty opponents say a thorough review of the Willingham case may force Texas to admit that it executed an innocent man. The Texas governor and others, however, say they remain convinced of Willingham’s guilt. Perry replaced the chairman of the Texas Forensic Science Commission and declined to reappoint two commission members. The commission was to hear testimony Friday from Craig Beyler, an arson investigation expert. He wrote the latest of three reports critical of the testimony that helped prosecutors convict Willingham of murder in 1992. The governor’s office told CNN the moves were a routine replacement of members whose terms had expired. In Ardmore, Oklahoma, however, where Willingham’s family lives, his stepmother said she was “shocked and disappointed” by the abrupt postponement of Friday’s hearing. “What good is it going to be having a commission if they don’t have the freedom to investigate and find out what really happened” Eugena Willingham asked.

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Barry Scheck, co-founder of the Innocence Project — which assists prisoners who could be proven innocent through DNA testing — called the governor’s decision “troubling.” He compared it to a series of resignations and firings that happened one night in October 1973 as President Richard Nixon sought to thwart an investigation into the Watergate scandal. “This is like the Saturday night massacre,” Scheck said in a statement. “Rather than let this important hearing go forward … the Governor fires the independent chairman and two other members of this Commission. It’s like Nixon firing [special Watergate prosecutor] Archibald Cox to avoid turning over the Watergate tapes.” The Innocence Project examined Willingham’s case in 2006, and concluded that “expert arson analysis shows an innocent man was executed.” It referred the case to the Texas Forensic Science Commission. Willingham was accused of setting a fire in his home in Corsicana, Texas, that killed his three daughters. He insisted on his innocence until the end. Perry, who says he remains convinced of Willingham’s guilt, replaced commission Chairman Sam Bassett on Wednesday with John Bradley, the district attorney of Williamson County, near Austin. He replaced another member, Aliece Watts, with San Antonio forensic pathologist Norma Farley. The governor also did not reappoint Alan Levy, a prosecutor in Fort Worth’s Tarrant County. As a result of the shakeup, the Forensic Science Commission put off Friday’s scheduled session with Beyler, who wrote a scathing report about the arson investigation that led to Willingham’s arrest. The Beyler report concludes that the findings at the heart of Willingham’s conviction — that the fire that killed his daughters was set deliberately — “could not be sustained” by either modern science or the standards of the time. Two previous reports by other experts also concluded that the fatal blaze was not arson, but Beyler’s is the first commissioned by the state. One investigator, Beyler said in the report, approached his job with an attitude “more characteristic of mystics or psychics” than with that of a detective who followed scientific standards. Beyler was to answer questions about his conclusions Friday in a public forum, but the commission “will need time to regroup and reorganize,” its staff coordinator, Leigh Tomlin, told CNN. Bassett said in a statement he is disappointed that the governor replaced him as chairman of the Texas Forensic Science Commission. He said the commission “should not get involved in debates about larger issues — such as guilt or innocence in a particular case” but that it’s important to continue investigating the Willingham case. “In my view, we should not fail to investigate important forensic issues in cases simply because there might be political ramifications,” he said. Bassett told CNN that he had asked to be reappointed to the commission, but, he said, “obviously, Governor Perry had other plans.” He would not say whether he thought his replacement was politically motivated, but added, “I’m worried the good work of the commission will get tabled.” Meanwhile, Corsicana Police Sgt. Jimmie Hensley, the lead investigator in the Willingham case, dismissed as “Monday-morning quarterbacking” reports that raise questions about the quality of the investigation that prosecutors used to win a conviction against Willingham. “I’m firmly a believer that justice was served,” he said.