Perry's Willingham delay
Gov. Rick 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
Since Perry signed off on the Willingham execution in 2004, his own
accountability is at stake. So perhaps it's no surprise that 2 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.
Critics are on the mark in comparing it to President Richard Nixon's
"Saturday night massacre," when he replaced top Justice Department
officials as they were tightening the noose in the Watergate case. Perry's
heavy hand suddenly has that creepy Nixonian feel.
The unseated forensics chairman is a defense attorney who did not ask to
be relieved of his duties when his term was up Sept. 1. The new chairman
is a prosecutor with a hard-line reputation. Perry's office has said
picking a new chairman is a routine exercise of his appointment
prerogative, just "business as usual."
The Willingham case, however, is disturbingly unusual.
The forensics commission, created on Perry's watch, singled out the
Willingham case as one of its first to assess for flaws. An arson expert
it hired produced a brutal appraisal of the original forensic work, which
concluded that arson was the cause of a house fire in Corsicana that
claimed the lives of Willingham's 3 young children.
The expert's report ridiculed an investigator in the case as claiming
clairvoyance about the cause of fires. The expert said the Willingham work
was oblivious to investigatory conventions and overlooked the obvious.
Bottom line, he said, is that the evidence does not support a finding of
It was that bottom line that the forensics panel was to consider today at
a meeting in Irving, but the meeting was called off. Members had been
scheduled to review the report and seek a rebuttal from the State Fire
Marshal's Office. Interested parties from across the country are anxiously
awaiting the state's response.
Now we wait. For how long, we don't know. The new chairman says he has to
get up to speed on the case.
Perry has all but dismissed what the commission's ultimate findings may be
anyway. The governor has already told this newspaper that the evidence was
"overwhelming" against Willingham.
How can any responsible person be so sure, short of a full airing of the
facts? To secure a capital murder conviction, the prosecution had to prove
arson, and it's hard to imagine that jurors would not have reasonable
doubt, given what we know today.
No, a painfully thorough look at the evidence is exactly what's called
for, with no more malodorous delays.
(source: Editorial, Dallas Morning News)
Texas governor derails important review of forensics in Willingham murder
The integrity of the prosecution in a criminal case, and thus the public's
faith in the justice system, can be severely eroded by news of mistakes,
misconduct or sloppy investigations by those entrusted to ensure equal
justice under the law.
The Texas Legislature created the Texas Forensic Science Commission in
2005 after a series of revelations about improper procedures in forensics
labs used to test criminal evidence. The nine-member body is charged with
reviewing forensic analysis problems in criminal cases.
The group's mission statement ( www.fsc.state.tx.us) says its role
includes investigating "in a timely manner" allegations of "professional
negligence or misconduct that would substantially affect the integrity of
the results of a forensic analysis conducted by an accredited laboratory,
facility or entity." The commission was scheduled to meet today to hear
from specialists and review a report by an expert it hired to examine
evidence in an arson case that resulted in the 2004 execution of Cameron
Todd Willingham. He had been convicted of murdering his children by
setting a fire in 1991. The expert, Dr. Craig Beyler of Baltimore,
concluded that investigators in the case had "poor understandings of fire
science" and that the Corsicana blaze that killed Willinghams children was
If thats an accurate assessment, Texas executed an innocent man, other
experts and death penalty opponents say. Gov. Rick Perry interrupted the
fact-finding process by abruptly dismissing 3 of his 4 commission
appointees, including Tarrant County prosecutor Alan Levy and Aliece
Watts, a forensic scientist in Euless. Perry also removed commission
Chairman Samuel Bassett, an Austin attorney.
3 other commission members were selected by the lieutenant governor, and 2
were named by the state attorney general.
Perry explained his actions as "pretty standard business" because the
commissioners' terms had expired. But the dismissals, 2 days before the
commission's scheduled meeting, forced the Willingham review to be
Earlier, the governor rejected the findings of what he called "latter-day
supposed experts" and said he was confident that Willingham was guilty of
the crime for which he was executed.
The new Perry-appointed commission chairman, Williamson County District
Attorney John Bradley, says it will take time for him and the other new
members to receive proper orientation. Just how much time it takes is up
Some veteran political watchers are betting that a meeting on the
Willingham case won't come before the March 2 gubernatorial primary in
which Republican heavyweights Perry and Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison will
face off. That's if it comes at all.
At worst, the governor's decision to can the commissioners looks
politically motivated. At best, it was very poorly timed. The move
derailed a process that the commission had initiated to get to the truth
about an execution that occurred on Perry's watch. The public is entitled
to know that truth.
Truth is the essence of the American criminal justice system. If the
public feels truth has been tampered with, disguised or hidden, confidence
in that system is lost.
It is in the best interest of this state and the best interest of justice
for the Texas Forensic Science Commission to reschedule a meeting to hear
new findings in the Willingham case as soon as possible which surely
would be before March 2.
To do otherwise would be a mockery that Texans and the entire nation
(source: Editorial, Fort Worth Star-Telegram)
Conspiracy hypothesis to be tested
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
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.
Happily, there's an easy way to test the hypothesis, which we will get to
Perry didn't directly cancel the commission's meeting, which was to hear
from a nationally renowned arson expert hired by the commission to
investigate scientific evidence presented to a jury that convicted
Willingham of setting his house on fire to kill his small children.
In a 51-page report already filed with the commission, Craig Beyler found
that the investigations presented at the trial "did not comport with
either the modern standard of care or the standard of care expressed by
fire investigation texts and papers in the period 1980-1992."
In other words, there was no proof of arson.
So how did Perry respond to this report? He publicly was dismissive when
it was released, then waited until 2 days before today's meeting to
replace the commission's chairman and 2 other members, all of whose terms
had expired a month earlier and were renewable.
The new chairman then promptly announced that he needed time to read
Beyler's report and consider how to respond to it.
The commission, which was established in 2005 but not funded until 2007,
was off to a good, if delayed, start under the chairmanship of Sam Bassett
of Austin. As a prominent defense attorney, Bassett gave the commission
extra credibility in its examination of law enforcement investigations.
The commission has two investigations under way, the Willingham case and
the development of serology evidence in the case of an El Paso man who has
already been found to have been falsely convicted of rape.
In addition, the commission has scheduled a series of "roundtables" around
the state to promote improvements in forensic science based on a landmark
report issued in February by the National Academy of Sciences.
Perry replaced Bassett with Williamson County District Attorney John
Bradley. Bradley is also highly regarded but has earned a reputation not
only as a tough prosecutor but also as an accomplished mover and shaker in
the Capitol halls.
"I know John well," said Houston Sen. John Whitmire, who chairs the Senate
Criminal Justice Committee and pushed for the Forensic Science Commission
after Houston's police lab blew up into a national scandal.
Whitmire said Bradley worked for that committee during legislative
sessions when he was an assistant district attorney.
"I've never questioned his integrity," Whitmire said. "He is very
Whitmire said he talked to Bradley on Thursday morning and is "taking a
wait-and-see approach" in hopes that "he won't let Perry's politics pull
"I told him, John, this is an opportunity to show what you're made of," he
But Whitmire also said he will schedule a committee hearing in about a
month to ask Bradley in what direction he plans to take the commission.
One likely question, said Whitmire: Will Bradley reschedule the Willingham
arson matter before the March primary?
That likely will a laboratory test of the hypothesis that Perry appointed
him as a political puppet.
(source: Editorial, Houston Chronicle)
Texas Gov.'s Move Putting Death Penalty Case Back in Spotlight
Anyone who took the time to read the fascinating piece by David Grann in
the New Yorker a few weeks back on the Cameron Willingham case might be
intrigued to learn of an interesting development on the cases aftermath,
currently playing out in Texas' top political circles.
Texas governor Rick Perry on Wednesday replaced the head of the Texas
Forensic Science Commission and 2 other members, just 48 hours before the
commission was to hear testimony from an arson expert who believes that
Willingham was convicted on bad evidence. Willingham was convicted and in
2004 executed in for setting a fire that killed his 3 children.
As chronicled in vivid detail in Grann's New Yorker piece, Willingham was
convicted of setting a fire in his Corsicana, Texas, home back in 1991
that led to the deaths of his three children. He was executed by lethal
injection 13 years later.
To the very end, however, Willingham maintained his innocence: "I am an
innocent man convicted of a crime I did not commit," he said before he was
Various experts who took up the Willingham case after his conviction but
before his execution came to believe Willingham's story. Gerald L. Hurst,
an Austin scientist and fire investigator, reviewed the evidence and
determined the investigators had relied on several outdated methods to
reach their conclusions. Most of the evidence could be explained by an
accidental fire, Hurst said.
Regardless, Gov. Perry declined to spare Willingham's life in 2004, and
continues to maintain that Willingham was guilty.
Craig Beyler, an independent arson expert hired by the state's Forensic
Science Commission, created in 2005 to investigate mistakes in crime labs,
was to testify on Friday presumably to say that hed agreed with many of
But the chairman newly appointed by Perry, John M. Bradley, canceled the
hearing, saying he did not know enough about the inquiry. "I felt I had
been asked to take a final exam without having an opportunity to study for
it," he said. Bradley said he did not know if he would continue the
inquiry into the Willingham conviction that his predecessor had started.
Perry's decision to shake up the commission has provided unexpected
election-year grist to his opponents.
"If a mistake was made in this case, we need to know it," Tom Schieffer, a
Fort Worth businessman and a Democratic candidate for governor, said in a
statement. "No one in public life should ever be afraid of the truth."
Perry's opponent in the upcoming Republican primary, Senator Kay Bailey
Hutchison, also questioned what harm the hearing could do. Perry denied
Thursday that the changes he had made at the commission were intended to
quash the investigation. At a news conference for his re-election
campaign, he said, "Those individuals' terms were up, so were replacing
(source: Wall Street Journal)
Texas Gov. Perry defends arson board shakeup
Gov. Rick Perry said Thursday that he defends his shakeup of a state arson
board just days before it was to review a report that concluded a faulty
investigation led to a mans 2004 execution.
Perry called the move "pretty normal protocol" and said it is premature to
declare the fatal fire Cameron Todd Willingham was convicted of setting as
not being arson. Willinghams three young daughters died in the 1991 blaze.
On Wednesday, Perry replaced the head of the Texas Forensic Science
Commission and two of its eight other board members. The panel was
scheduled to meet Friday to review a report on the arson findings that led
to Willingham's capital murder conviction and execution.
The panel's new head, Williamson County District Attorney John Bradley,
canceled Friday's meeting. It hasn't been rescheduled.
"What's happening is we're following pretty normal protocol," Perry said
at a news conference for his re-election campaign. "Those individuals'
terms were up so we're replacing them. That's not … out of the
Perry, a Republican, has been governor since 2000 and is seeking a third
full term in office.
Willingham, 36, was convicted of setting the fire that killed 2-year-old
Amber and 1-year-old twins Karmon and Kameron on Dec. 23, 1991, in the
family's Corsicana home.
Willingham maintained his innocence, even from the death chamber. A state
fire marshal, who also is now deceased, and a local fire investigator
ruled it was arson. They testified that a liquid accelerant was ignited
and the blaze was set to prevent anyone from rescuing the children. The
investigator still stands by the findings.
The Forensic Science Commission hired Baltimore-based arson expert Craig
Beyler to study the case. Beyler concluded the arson findings were
scientifically unsupported and that investigators at the scene had "poor
understandings of fire science."
Beyler's report has bolstered arguments from advocacy groups that
Willingham was innocent and wrongly executed.
The state commission doesnt have the power to rule on Willingham's guilt
or innocence but was expected to release a report next year on the
validity of the arson investigation.
"They're going to take a look at any new information that anybody has,"
Perry said. "To make a statement now that it was not arson is a little
Perry said it was better to appoint new members before they started work
on the report.
"If you've got a whole new investigation going forward, it makes a lot
more sense to put the new people in now and let them start the full
process rather than having people in there for a short period of time and
then replacing them," Perry said.
"If we're trying to find truth and get to the crux of the issue here, then
I would suggest folks allow the process to work," he added.
Austin attorney Sam Bassett, who was replaced by Bradley as the panel's
head, called the delay in the case "a big letdown."
"It was a big disappointment because everyone on the commission has put so
much work into not just this case but the entire work of the commission,"
(source: Associated Press)
Some medical examiners boost their pay by offering expertise for sale
Unlike the glitzy offices of CSI: Miami, the typical U.S. medical
examiner's office is an unremarkable place where professionals tend to be
underpaid and overworked. The medical examiners job, in fact, carries
little glamour. It is work that few really want to do and governments are
not eager to pay for.
In Texas, though, some medical examiners boost their pay by also
performing autopsies for dozens of the state's smaller counties,
consulting for criminal defense attorneys and doing other side jobs.
And counties can get additional revenues to help pay for the medical
Some see no problem with the arrangements. Small counties can select the
medical examiner who does the best work at the best price, they say.
"It's a marketplace," said Donald Lee, executive director for the Texas
Conference of Urban Counties. "If you don't like the price you're getting
from one, go to the next one."
The integrity of the medical examiners ensures quality, said Doug Lowe,
district attorney for Anderson County, southeast of Dallas. "The people
who do forensic work by and large are real serious about their ethics and
do not accept cases where the money is about, 'Im paying you to testify a
certain way,'" he said.
Others, though, are troubled by some of the financial arrangements, which
they say can chip away at the integrity of the work.
"The incentive is to run as many bodies through your morgue operation as
possible," said Dr. Stephen Pustilnik, chief medical examiner in
Galveston. "The more you can do, the more money you make."
Side-business associations also can be rife with conflict, critics say. If
a medical examiners opinions displease repeat customers counties, police
and prosecutors they can take their business elsewhere. And it may be
difficult to verify whether a medical examiner improperly uses county
equipment or facilities for private business.
Dallas County Chief Medical Examiner Jeffrey Barnard says he doesnt do
private consulting for ethical reasons. "No way," Barnard says.
T. Gerald Treece, professor of law at the South Texas College of Law in
Houston, likened the private work to a district attorney having a
part-time private practice. Such work is forbidden by standards that say
the prosecutor should devote his primary effort to his office and should
have no outside financial interests that could conflict with his duty.
No such ethics code bans medical examiners from moonlighting.
"I guess the real argument is, Can a public entity run a for-profit
concern? In my opinion, it violates the fiduciary duty that the public
officials have to the citizenry that hires them," Treece said.
At the minimum, the county has to be the one to initiate and enter into
such financial arrangements, not the pathologist, Treece said. And there
must be a compelling justification, such as to help a smaller county that
lacks resources, he said.
Some medical examiners say counties leave them little choice but to take
on more work.
Former Travis County Chief Medical Examiner Roberto Bayardo told the
Star-Telegram that he expanded his services to more than 40 counties to
make millions for the county. Otherwise, he said, the medical examiner's
office would not have been able to buy more equipment and expand services
because the county was chintzy and didn't dedicate new revenues to the
office when he asked. A 2005 audit showed that almost 81 % of the office's
$2 million budget was subsidized by payments from other counties.
It was also the only way to supplement his salary, he said. In 2000,
Bayardo was reported as handling more than 1,500 autopsies a year. In
2005, the audit reported that Bayardo and other Travis County pathologists
got an extra $300 for each out-of-county autopsy they performed; the
county kept $1,700. Under criticism for handling an excessive number of
cases, he retired in 2006.
"I felt I was doing a good job," he recently told the Star-Telegram. "The
main thing [is] I was saving the county so much money. But it was
something they took badly and in the end said I was working on the cheap."
Throughout the state, counties have searched for ways to lower expenses.
Jefferson County has an arrangement with the Southeast Texas Forensic
Center, headed by Dr. Tommy J. Brown, to do autopsies and related forensic
services at the county morgue in Beaumont. Under the contract, in return
for providing the facility, the county gets 200 free autopsies a year. The
company provides personnel and supplies and reimburses the county for
water, utilities and other services. It makes money by performing
And the company can do autopsies for any number of other counties and
third parties, set whatever prices it chooses and keep all the revenue,
the contract states. It now handles autopsies for 16 counties. State
records show that Brown also has two other companies that operate from the
county morgue, TBRS Inc. and Morgue Novelties, listed under "gift shop" on
the Web site of the Southeast Texas Forensic Center. The company also
operates centers in Conroe and Tyler, its Web site shows. Brown declined
requests for an interview.
Tarrant County splits revenues with Chief Medical Examiner Nizam Peerwani
for work done for counties outside the medical examiner district.
Initially, Tarrant County officials would not provide a copy of Peerwanis
contract, saying he was a private contractor. The contract was released
after a Star-Telegram challenge. Under the contract, the county does not
pay Peerwani a salary.
Instead, it paid his professional association $936,368 to provide medical
examiner services last fiscal year, county records show. The association
included Peerwani and three deputy medical examiners; the county has no
breakdown of their salaries. (The office added a fourth deputy medical
examiner this year.)
The association was paid $152,389 more for services to Denton, Johnson and
Parker counties, which are in the medical examiner district. That
represents 35 % of the amount the 3 counties pay to Tarrant to offset
expenses for operating the office.
Peerwani also has an arrangement with Tarrant County to split revenues
from autopsies he performs in Tarrant Countys facilities for dozens of
smaller counties. His association gets 60 % of the proceeds, and the
county 40 %. In the fiscal year ending Sept. 30, 2008, his share amounted
to $578,739, according to county records.
Tarrant County Commissioner Gary Fickes said he believes the county
approved the contract because of the quality of service Peerwani provides.
Tarrant County is Peerwanis priority, Fickes said. "The citizens of
Tarrant County are blessed to have someone so well-regarded across the
country," he said.
In addition to his public service, Peerwani also operates a private
autopsy business, Anatomic and Forensic Pathology. By contract, it cannot
use the county morgue or equipment. "No doctor can perform a private
autopsy in the Tarrant County morgue, and we dont," Peerwani said.
One customer is the Federal Medical Center Carswell. It reported paying
Peerwani and his company about $34,000 in fiscal 2008.
The issue of concern for smaller counties is the increasing cost of
autopsies. Burnet County Justice of the Peace Peggy Simon says the costs
can influence decisions about pursuing autopsies.
"The cost is ridiculous," she said. "You might think twice about ordering
an autopsy just because of the cost of your county. If your county cant
afford it, it might play in to your decision to make sure justice is done
the correct way."
Midland County Justice of the Peace David Cobos, who is a board member of
the states Justices of the Peace and Constables Association, is looking
for ways to cut costs. The county budgets $250,000 a year for autopsies
and transportation of bodies, much of which goes to Tarrant County. Each
autopsy, including transporting the body nearly 300 miles to Fort Worth,
costs his county $5,000, he said.
Cobos is talking with other counties about establishing a regional medical
examiner's office or using a private forensic service to save money. The
counties have talked with the Southeast Texas Forensic Center about
opening a Permian Basin Forensic Center in Odessa.
Anderson County turns to Dallas County for some autopsies but pays the
Southeast Texas Forensic Center for others because it is cheaper. The
discipline record of one of the companys pathologists gave Lowe, the
district attorney, pause.
Dr. Delbert Van Dusen was disciplined by the Texas Medical Board in 2000
for doing dozens of autopsies in Harris County without a Texas license.
"You wonder about that," Lowe said. But he said he has been satisfied.
"He seemed competent," Lowe said. "I'm hopeful that his experiences were
in the past. It looked to me like he was a victim of their workload" in
But if he had to depend on Van Dusen for any murder cases, he suspects
that defense attorneys would make an issue of his credentials.
Theresa Caballero, a defense attorney in El Paso, said medical examiners
disciplinary records are fair game. "It's always good for a defense
attorney to cross-examine a medical examiner who has been discredited by
his own profession," she said.
(source: Fort Worth Star-Telegram)
No testimony from Devoe in capital murder trial
A man accused of killing 6 people in 2 states during 2007 did not testify
before the defense rested in his Texas capital murder trial.
Closing arguments were expected Friday in the Austin trial of Paul Devoe.
He was charged with killing 15-year-old Haylie Faulkner and 17-year-old
Prosecutors are seeking the death penalty. Both sides rested Thursday.
Prosecutors say Devoe fatally shot Michael Allred at a bar in Marble
Devoe is also accused of killing his ex-girlfriend Paula Griffith and her
boyfriend Jay Feltner in Jonestown, at a home where the teens also were
Devoe allegedly had car trouble near State Line, Pa., killed Betty Jane
Dehart and stole her vehicle. He was arrested in Shirley, N.Y., on Aug.
(source: Associated Press)