Gov. Perry replaces head of agency investigating Texas arson findings
Gov. Rick Perry was blasted Wednesday after he swept three appointees from
their jobs just 2 days before they were set to critically examine a flawed
arson investigation that contributed to the execution of a Corsicana man.
The hearing of the Texas Forensic Science Commission, scheduled for Friday
in Irving, was abruptly canceled by the new chairman the governor chose,
Williamson County District Attorney John Bradley. He is considered one of
the most conservative, hard-line prosecutors in Texas.
The commission was to hear from Baltimore-based Craig Beyler, a nationally
recognized fire expert, who had been hired by the panel to review the
Cameron Todd Willingham case. Beyler's long-anticipated report, released
in August, called the Willingham fire investigation slipshod and based on
wives' tales about how fire behaves and possible arson evidence.
Perry said his move was a typical use of his power on appointments, on
which he has complete discretion. But Barry Scheck, co-director of the New
York-based Innocence Project, compared the move to Richard Nixon during
"This is like the Saturday night massacre," said Scheck, whose group also
reviewed the Willingham case and found it lacking. "Rather than let this
important hearing go forward and the report be heard, the governor fires
the independent chairman and 2 other members of this commission. It's like
Nixon firing [special prosecutor] Archibald Cox to avoid turning over the
Beyler concluded that no reasonable investigator could determine that the
1991 Corsicana house fire, which killed Willingham's three young children,
was intentionally set. Others, including the prosecutor in the case, have
conceded that that the arson investigation was flawed, but they have
maintained that other evidence and Willingham's actions still point to his
The Willingham case has drawn national attention, and anti-death penalty
advocates consider it the likeliest case in recent decades in which an
innocent man was executed.
Perry had denied Willingham's request for a stay of execution 5 years ago.
His lawyers asked the governor for the 30-day reprieve to give the courts
time to review a new report that called the fire investigation into
question. Willingham had always maintained his innocence.
The governor has questioned Beyler's findings and argued that there is
other evidence of Willingham's guilt. And Perry told The Associated Press
on Wednesday that the terms of the dismissed board members were expiring
that and replacing them "was pretty standard business as usual."
On Wednesday, the governor chose not to extend the appointments of
commission chairman Sam Bassett, an Austin lawyer, as well as Fort Worth
prosecutor Alan Levy and a forensic lab specialist, Aliece Watts of
Levy's position, reserved by statute for a prosecutor, was given to
Bradley, and the governor immediately named him chairman of the 9-member
commission. Watts was replaced by forensic pathologist Norma Jean Farley
of Harlingen. A replacement for Bassett, who held the slot reserved for a
criminal defense attorney, was not named.
All of their terms had expired Sept. 1, but Bassett, named chairman by
Perry two years ago, had asked to retain his slot.
Bradley said he learned of the appointment Wednesday morning when he was
called by the governor's office. He said it was not a position he sought.
He said he canceled Friday's commission meeting because he thought "it was
too much to ask for myself and the new members to absorb," and because he
wanted time to review the Beyler report and materials.
Bradley said he is not yet "informed enough" to know if he would ask
Beyler to present his report at a future meeting or continue the line of
questioning begun unanimously by the commission.
"I just know it's going to keep my weekend busy," Bradley said.
Bassett said he learned Wednesday morning that he was being replaced and
the timing disturbed him.
"In my view, we should not fail to investigate important forensic issues
in cases simply because there might be political ramifications," Bassett
Gerald Hurst, a Cambridge-educated chemist who was the chief scientist for
the nation's largest explosives manufacturer, was the expert who authored
a report sent to Perry shortly before Willingham's execution. His report
found that the arson evidence used against Willingham was based on
since-discredited junk science.
He said he is not surprised by the governor's actions, although "I didn't
think he would go this drastic."
"Look at the situation: He appoints a commission and the first case they
take up is an execution that was signed off on by the governor who had a
chance to interrupt it," Hurst said.
He added that Perry apparently didn't want the public to hear from Beyler
because he is an impeccable source.
"He is one of the top fire scientists in the nation. He's not to be
confused with anti-death penalty nuts," Hurst said. "There are only a very
few who are at the top of their fields, and he is one."
Perry's challenger in the March Republican primary, Sen. Kay Bailey
Hutchison, said the case has not been handled properly.
"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 said. "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."
Hutchison declined to say whether she believes Willingham was innocent.
"I answered your question," she said. "To the best of my knowledge, I've
answered your question."
Democratic candidate Tom Schieffer also said the commission should
reschedule the hearing quickly to question Beyler and examine his
"No one in public life should ever be afraid of the truth. In the final
analysis, truth is the only thing that serves justice," he said.
At a Glance: Perry's panel changes
Changes made by Gov. Rick Perry to the Texas Forensic Science Commission:
Sam Bassett, chairman: An Austin criminal and family-law attorney
Alan Levy: Heads the criminal division in the Tarrant County district
Aliece Watts: A forensic scientist for a private laboratory in Euless
John Bradley, chairman: The Williamson County district attorney, named
2009 "prosecutor of the year" by the Texas District and County Attorney's
Norma Jean Farley: Chief forensic pathologist for Hidalgo and Cameron
counties and an associate professor at the University of Texas Health
Science Center College of Medicine in San Antonio
NOTE: Perry can't appoint a third replacement until he receives a
recommendation from the Texas Criminal Defense Lawyers Association.
[sources: Wire reports, governor's office]
(source: Dallas Morning News)