Why Did Texas Gut Its Forensics Commission?
His predecessor left office to become President but Rick Perry has now
become the longest-serving and most powerful governor in the history of
the state of Texas. That is very much due to his use of wide-ranging
appointment powers that have allowed him to dominate state boards,
commissions and courts that control many aspects of daily life in Texas.
But, in the past week, a brouhaha over his refusal to reappoint three
members of an obscure forensic-science commission has political observers
wondering if Perry, who is facing a potentially bruising GOP primary
battle, has made a political misstep.
A well-placed source has confirmed to TIME that Perry ignored the written
pleas from several members of the Texas Forensic Science Commission,
including two of his own appointees, to reappoint the board's
well-respected chairman, Austin lawyer Sam Bassett. Bassett's departure
has resulted in a delay in an important investigation of evidence in a
death-penalty case that critics say will prove an innocent man was
executed on Perry's watch.
The Texas Forensic Science Commission evaluates forensics standards in a
state that too frequently has been in an unwelcome spotlight on issues of
crime and punishment. Recently, Texas has been working to show that it is
not all frontier justice and, indeed, the day Perry's office announced he
was dropping Bassett and appointing a new commission chairman, the
governor also issued a "pardon for innocence" for James Lee Woodard,
released last year after serving 27 years in prison for a murder and rape
he did not commit. Woodard was exonerated on the basis of DNA testing
urged by the New York Citybased Innocence Project, led by noted defense
attorney Barry Scheck.
Scheck's group is also pressing the case that is at the heart of Perry's
moves at the forensics commission: that of Cameron Todd Willingham, who
was put to death in 2004 for the murder of his three children in a 1991
house fire in Corsicana, Texas. In September, Willingham's story was
detailed in a New Yorker investigative report by David Grann. It details
the conclusions of 2 noted experts that the fire was accidental and that
the arson evidence presented at Willingham's trial was not based on
science. "The New Yorker's investigation lays out this case in its
totality and leads to the inescapable conclusion that Willingham was
innocent," Scheck says.
On the apparent cusp of the forensics board's re-examination of the
evidence in the Willingham case, Perry has not only dropped forensics
chairman Bassett but 2 other members of the body, Fort Worth prosecutor
Alan Levy and forensics expert Aliece Watts, both of whom had written
letters to Perry in support of Bassett continuing as commission head so
their work could continue without interruption. Scheck compared Perry's
failure to reappoint the 3 to the infamous Saturday Night Massacre of 1973
when President Nixon fired the special prosecutor investigating the
Watergate scandal. But Perry's office said the changes were "business as
usual" and the governor added, "Those individuals' terms were up, so we're
Sarah Kerrigan, a forensic toxicologist who was appointed by Texas
attorney general Greg Abbott, told TIME that she had circulated a letter
she had sent "3 or 4 weeks ago" in support of Bassett to Perry among the
commission's members and she was aware of similar letters written by Watts
and Levy. (The governor appoints four members of the forensics board; the
state attorney general appoints 2 and the lieutenant governor appoints
three. In this case, Bassett, Levy and Watts were all Perry appointees.
Bassett was 1st named to the commission in 2005 and reappointed in 2007.)
Much of the case for Willingham's innocence rests on the conclusions of
two prominent forensic arson experts including Craig Beyler, who was
scheduled to testify before the commission last week. But Perry's new
forensics chairman, Williamson County district attorney John Bradley, a
well-known, tough-on-crime prosecutor, cancelled last week's meeting on
Willingham, saying he needed time to get up to speed on the commission's
work. Beyler's testimony in the Willingham case has now been put off until
Bradley sets a hearing, and he has not indicated when, or if, he will,
saying he needs to talk to state leaders about the role of the commission.
So far, leading Democrats in the state senate who pressed for the creation
of the commission are praising Bradley's integrity, but say they will call
a hearing in a few weeks to hear what his plans are.
Kerrigan says the members believe it is important for continuity to keep
Bassett on board in order to wrap up not only the Willingham report, but
also preside over several important roundtables aimed at improving
forensics standards part of a nationwide initiative prompted by a report
on forensic shortcomings by the National Academy of Sciences. Bassett told
TIME he was dismayed and puzzled by Perry's decision. "I certainly hope
this change is not about political concerns," Bassett says.
Some political observers speculate that Perry's actions may have something
to do with the potentially bruising March 2, 2010, Republican
gubernatorial primary in which he is set to face off against U.S. Senator
Kay Bailey Hutchison. The Senator has already raised forensic accuracy as
an issue. "I am for the death penalty," Hutchison told the Dallas Morning
News in response to Perry's actions, "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." It is a stance Bassett agrees with. He
supports the death penalty in some cases but adds, "We just have to make
damn sure we are relying on the best quality evidence possible."
But Perry stands by the decision to execute Willingham. "I am familiar
with the latter-day supposed experts on the arson side of it," Perry told
the Dallas Morning News last month. Over the weekend, his office told the
Corsicana Daily Sun: "Governor Perry has reviewed the totality of the
facts of the case, and has stood by the conclusions reached by the courts
… To suggest the arson testimony was the only evidence presented to the
jury is grossly inaccurate. The jury also heard testimony of inaccuracies
in Willingham's statements."
Still, last week's decision has prompted head-scratching by political
observers, even those with ties to the Republican Party. The commission's
final report on the Willingham case would not have been issued until late
spring or summer of 2010, after the State Fire Marshal's Office would have
responded to Beyler's report. The political reality is that the death
penalty is unlikely to be an issue in the March Republican primary, says
Bill Miller, an Austin political consultant, and it has never had much
traction in fall contests, given the wide support for the penalty among
both Democratic and Republican voters in the state. Could it be simply an
expression of his power? Hubris? Acting because he can? "Well, it is his
board," says Miller with a laugh.
Hutchison disagrees with Perry on commission move
U.S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison said she disagrees with Gov. Rick Perry's
decision to remove three members of the forensic science commission right
before they were to hear evidence in an arson capital murder case.
Hutchison said the hearing that was to have been Friday but was canceled
could have shed light on whether arson was involved in the case of Todd
Willingham, who was executed for the deaths of his 3 daughters.
Hutchison said Monday she supports the death penalty, but said all
evidence should be examined.
Questions have been raised about whether Willingham committed arson, as
Perry spokesman Mark Miner said terms were expiring for the members of the
commission who were removed. He said new members will investigate the
case. He said Hutchison doesn't have all the facts.
(source: Associated Press)
Jury deciding fate of man in Texas farm deaths
Jurors on Monday began deliberating whether a Missouri man who pleaded
guilty to the 2005 massacre of a Texas Panhandle farming family will die
by lethal injection or serve life in prison without parole.
Levi King, 27, pleaded guilty Sept. 3 to killing 35-year-old Michell
Conrad, who was 6 months pregnant; 31-year-old Brian Conrad, her husband;
and 14-year-old Zach Doan, her son.
Lubbock County jurors got the case late Monday – a month after the penalty
phase of the trial started – and deliberated for about 90 minutes. The
jury, which is sequestered, will resume deliberations Tuesday morning.
Earlier Monday, defense attorney Maxwell Peck III pleaded for King's life,
asking jurors to resist making a decision based on revenge.
"Every day (he's in prison) he will be reminded of what pain he has
caused," Peck said during closing statements. "Levi King has committed the
ultimate crime but we're asking for less than extreme punishment."
According to testimony, King was emotionally neglected by both parents and
spent time around a father who did drugs regularly and who introduced them
to King and his siblings in an impoverished childhood in Missouri.
King did not testify during the trial.
During her closing statement, prosecutor Lynn Switzer displayed
photographs of the bullet-ridden bodies of the three family members lying
in or near their beds and played the beginning of a 911 call from the sole
survivor, 10-year-old Robin Doan.
The slain mother's youngest child called authorities after King left the
family's farmhouse near Pampa. Robin could be heard on the tape sobbing as
she told the dispatcher: "I want my mommy."
The girl had survived even though the intruder had fired into her bed.
Robin, now 14, testified during King's trial that she awoke to her
mother's screams the night of Sept. 30, 2005, and heard the killer go from
one room to another, shooting her family members.
Switzer told jurors Monday that King was not high on drugs or alcohol when
he killed the family members.
"Enough is enough," Switzer said. "He was stone-cold sober."
Last year, King pleaded guilty to the shooting deaths of Orlie McCool, 70,
and his 47-year-old daughter-in-law, Dawn McCool, in a rural Pineville,
Mo. Authorities said King drove Orlie McCool's pickup truck from Missouri
to Texas and randomly stopped at the Conrads' home not far from Interstate
In a plea agreement with Missouri prosecutors, King was sentenced to
consecutive life terms without parole.
He was captured the same night he killed the Texas family as he tried to
re-enter the U.S. at the Mexican border in El Paso, Texas.
Before the sentencing phase began, King told the judge he had been
diagnosed with bipolar disorder and paranoid schizophrenia; he also has
been told he was psychotic. Peck said King has been suicidal.
(source: Associated Press)
In punishment phase, victim's mom brings tears to Devoe jury
A Travis County jury on Monday listened to a 2007 statement from Paul
Devoe describing how he killed an 81-year-old woman in Pennsylvania and
heard from witnesses who said that he had beaten and threatened to kill a
string of his love interests over the years.
But it was the testimony of Christine Gribble, mother of 17-year-old Devoe
murder victim Danielle Hensley, that proved the most emotional at the
start of the sentencing phase in Devoe's trial and left some jurors wiping
On Friday morning, Devoe was found guilty of murdering Danielle and her
friend Haylie Faulkner, 15, during what prosecutors say was a killing
spree that left six people dead in 2007. He could receive the death
Gribble said that in the year before her death, Danielle had rebounded
from serious depression to become a girl who smiled often and tried to
reach out tokids at Vista Ridge High School who were having trouble
fitting in. Gribble said that she has not washed Danielle's clothes or bed
sheets so that they will "continue to smell like her" and that her husband
continues to pay for Danielle's cell phone service so that Gribble can
hear her daughter's voice-mail message.
"I can't even explain how much I am missing my daughter," Gribble said. "I
feel like I'm broken."
After what is expected to be about three days of testimony, which
continues today, the jury will answer two questions: Is there a
probability that Devoe will commit future acts of violence, and are there
any mitigating circumstances that warrant a sentence of life in prison
rather than death?
If the answer to the first question is "yes" and the second is "no," then
Devoe will be ordered to be executed. If not, he will get life in prison
According to testimony, Devoe drove to a Marble Falls bar on Aug. 24,
2007, and shot 41-year-old bartender Michael Allred with a stolen gun.
Then, prosecutors say, he went to the Jonestown home of ex-girlfriend
Paula Marie Griffith, 46, and fatally shot her and her boyfriend Jay
Feltner, 48, as well as Haylie and Danielle.
Prosecutors sayDevoe then took Griffith's car and headed east toward his
native Long Island, N.Y. According to a statement from Devoe to police
thatwas read in court Monday, he had car trouble and decided to shoot
81-year-old Betty DeHart in her home in Greencastle, Pa., for her car.
"She jumped on the bed and tried to cover herself with her arms, and I
just snapped," Devoe said in the statement.
A number of people from Devoe's past testified Monday, including Ralph
Mutascio, who said that in 1988 Devoe fired a shotgun on a group of
Mutascio's friends on Long Island.
Another witness, Jody Pagel of Patchogue, N.Y., dated Devoe off and on for
12 years. She said Devoe twice choked her to the point that she thought
she was going to die.
Mary McNellage of Spicewood said that Devoe put a knife to her throat
after she kicked him out of her house a few years ago.
And Glenda Purcell of Marble Falls, whom Devoe apparently targeted in the
Marble Falls bar before shooting Allred, said Devoe had beaten her several
times during the summer of 2007.
(source: Austin American-Statesman)
Man freed in '85 bombing in Tarrant is killed in car accident
In the end, Michael Roy Toney died a free man.
In the decade between his 1999 conviction for bombing a mobile home near
Fort Worth and his fatal car accident on Saturday in Cherokee County,
Toney had been many things to many people.
To some, he was an attention-seeker a man who wrote repeatedly to the
victims' family from death row, claiming innocence, and who once tried to
auction off seats to his own execution.
To anti-death-penalty groups, he was the victim of judicial misconduct,
exonerated after prosecutors admitted mishandling evidence and a judge
threw out his conviction last year.
To Susan Blount, who lost half her family in the bombing, Toney was a
killer so manipulative that when she learned his pickup crashed,
overturned and killed him a month after his release, she refused to
"I do not trust that man could actually die that easily," said Blount, who
was waiting Monday for the Texas attorney general's office to call her and
confirm that the dead man was not someone else carrying Toney's ID.
"Not until he calls me and says, 'This is Michael Toney,' will I believe
this is Michael Toney," she said.
Blount said she still has no idea why someone left a black leather
briefcase on the steps of her trailer near Lake Worth in 1985.
The pipe bomb inside killed her husband, nephew and 15-year-old daughter
and burned her son's shoes to the bottom of his feet.
The killings also stumped investigators until 1997, when an inmate in the
Parker County Jail told them Toney, by then a chronic offender for thefts
and burglaries, had admitted to the bombing.
The inmate later recanted, but his allegation led police to several
witnesses, including Toney's ex-wife and best friend. Their testimonies
helped prosecutors argue that Toney had been an errant assassin intending
the bomb for another trailer in the same park as part of a drug-related
The jury agreed and in 1999 sentenced Toney to death for capital murder.
Toney, 43, always insisted he was framed.
He wrote Blount so many letters of appeal from death row that she
eventually instructed the prison to stop delivering them.
Toney's pleas and apparent cracks in the prosecution's case, including a
key witness who kept changing his story, persuaded anti-death-penalty
groups to take up his cause.
Still, Toney seemed to have little hope of avoiding execution until late
last year, when prosecutors admitted they had withheld 14 key documents
from the defense during the original trial.
Suddenly, the case against Toney collapsed faster than it had mounted. He
was released from prison in September with the attorney general's office
promising to reinvestigate the murders.
Little is known about Toney's short time as a free man.
He was living in Jacksonville at the time of his death, according to the
Texas Department of Public Safety.
Officers said Toney was driving along a farm road on a cloudy Saturday
morning when his pickup veered off the road and rolled. Toney was thrown
from the vehicle.
The highway patrol said alcohol may have been a factor.
While skeptical of his death, Blount still hoped it could spell an end to
the endless calls from investigators, activists and reporters each a
reminder of a tragedy she can't forget.
"If I can finally say it's over after 24 years," she said, "I'd be the
happiest person on earth."
(source: Dallas Morning News)