Perry Playing with Fire

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The Texas Forensic Science Commission was supposed to meet in Irving today to examine the case of Cameron Todd Willingham, an almost assuredly innocent man executed in 2004.

That meeting won’t happen today. And it’s unknown if it will ever happen.

As you know, the cancellation is the result of Rick Perry’s decision to replace three members of the Forensic Science Commission on Wednesday. The decision has created a media firestorm.

Most of the major newspapers in Texas have slammed Perry for this powerplay (Grits and Kuffner have good roundups of the coverage). Many national outlets also have featured this story, including the New Yorker, New York Times and NPR. (Shameless plug: yours truly was interviewed for the NPR segment yesterday on All Things Considered.)

As my colleague Bob Moser reports, Perry was inundated with questions about Willingham during an appearance yesterday with anti-tax crusader Grover Norquist. Bob rightly points out that when even Burka is calling this a “cover up,” Perry might have a serious scandal on his hands.

So why would Perry do this?

It seems to me — and I’ll preface this by saying it’s speculation — that Perry’s people have made the calculation that taking their lumps now is better than the alternative.

Imagine this scenario: It’s early next year, right before the March primary, and the Forensic Science Commission– a state government body whose members Perry helped appoint — issues its final report on Willingham, which concludes that Perry had overseen the execution of an innocent man (and allowed it even though his office knew of mitigating evidence before the execution). That’s the nightmare scenario they’re trying to avoid.

I suspect the Perry people are hoping the current fiasco blows over, and forgotten in a few months. Meanwhile, with John Bradley in charge of the commission, the Willingham investigation can be scuttled entirely or slow-walked till after the election or watered down so the final conclusions aren’t so critical of Perry.

It’s a risky play, though. It’s not clear this issue will be forgotten any time soon.

For one, the Craig Beyler report — with its devastating critique of the forensics in Willingham’s case — has already been released and isn’t going away.

And a lot of people are outraged by Perry’s decision and will likely keep this issue alive.

State Sen. Juan “Chuy” Hinojosa, a key player in creating (and funding) the Forensic Science Commission in 2005 and 2007, told me, “It’s very unfortunate because we should always search for the truth. We as a state have made mistakes  and we need to find ways to not repeat those mistakes  and ways to improve our criminal justice system.”

“It just gives the wrong impression,” Hinojosa said of Perry’s decision. “The public has the right to know if we made a mistake.”

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.