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Perry Tried to Meddle in Willingham Inquiry

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So maybe it wasn’t “business as usual” after all.

Critics have been hounding Gov. Rick Perry for weeks about his decision to fire three members of the Forensic Science Commission before they could finish investigating the case of an apparently innocent man executed in 2004. The governor’s office has said the replacements were bureaucratic business as usual.

Well, this morning The Chicago Tribune is reporting that the governor’s office pressured the Forensic Science Commission to scale back (or end) its investigation into the case of Cameron Todd Willingham. (Perry allowed Willingham’s execution despite receiving last-minute mitigating evidence.)

The story is a must read. Here’s the lead:

Just months before the controversial removal of three members of a state commission investigating the forensics that led to a Texas man’s 2004 execution, top aides to Gov. Rick Perry tried to pressure the chairman of the panel over the direction of the inquiry, the chairman has told the Tribune.Samuel Bassett, whom Perry replaced on the Texas Forensic Science Commission two weeks ago, said he twice was called to meetings with Perry’s top attorneys. At one of those meetings, Bassett said he was told they were unhappy with the course of the commission’s investigation.”

The Tribune reports that Perry’s office also expressed concern about the cost of hiring a national expert to examine the Willingham case:

According to Bassett, the governor’s attorneys questioned the cost of the inquiry and asked why a fire scientist from Texas could not be hired to examine the case instead of the expert from Maryland that the panel ultimately settled on.”

Attorneys from Perry’s office later started attending commission meetings. One of the attorneys, David Cabrales, apparently told Bassett that:

Bassett said, Cabrales told him in February that the Willingham investigation was not the kind of work the legislature intended for the commission.”

That’s just a shocking statement. And incorrect. Anyone who’s followed the Forensic Science Commission knows that the Legislature created the commission to investigate cases exactly like Willingham’s.

In fact, Barry Scheck of the Innocence Project — when lobbying for the commission’s creation and funding in 2005 and 2007 — frequently mentioned the Willingham case in his arguments for why Texas needed a commission to investigate flawed forensics. And almost immediately after the commission received funding in 2007, the Innocence Project asked the commission to make Willingham one of its first investigations.

It’s unusual for the governor’s office to become so deeply involved in a small state government body — to say nothing of trying to manipulate its work.

Of course, Perry likely didn’t want the Forensic Science Commission to conclude that the forensics in Willingham’s case were flawed — that might have made Texas the first state in the country to officially admit executing an innocent man.

It certainly appears that Gov. Perry’s office pressured the Forensic Science Commission to scale back the Willingham investigation.

And when some of the commissioners would play along, they were replaced.

Dave Mann has been with the Observer since 2003. Before that, he worked as a reporter in Fort Worth and Washington, D.C. He was born and raised in Philadelphia. He thinks border collies are the world’s greatest dogs, and believes in the nourishing powers of pickup basketball.