Willingham Inquiry Going Nowhere Fast

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After nearly seven months of delay, the Texas Forensic Science Commission finally brought up the Cameron Todd Willingham case again on Friday— for all of 10 minutes.

The long-anticipated meeting, at an upscale hotel in Irving, lasted more than six hours. That included about two hours of discussion of backlogs at crime labs—an important issue, but one that some observers and at least one commission member, said was outside the commission’s purview. The panel also discussed at length various personnel matters, whether to hire a general counsel, public-comment policies, and maintenance of the agency’s Web site. Only about an hour was dedicated to discussing cases marred by flawed forensics—the agency’s primary mission.  

Little progress was made on the long-stalled investigation of Willingham—a likely innocent man executed in 2004. Commissioners agreed that the inquiry is still in its “infancy” and that they would continue gathering information. (For more details on the discussion, go here.)

The Willingham inquiry stalled last September when Gov. Rick Perry, in a controversial move, replaced three members of the commission and installed Williamson County DA John Bradley as chair.

On Friday, the commission named four of its members to a panel that will continue the Willingham investigation—a process that apparently will take place out of public view.

Stephen Saloom, with the New York-based Innocence Project, said he was glad the commission was finally returning to the Willingham case, but he was still disappointed with the slow pace. “They’re obviously not moving quickly enough,” he said. “We spent a lot of time on unnecessarily duplicative procedural matters at the last meeting [in January]….There’s been no reason for all this bureaucracy.”

Some critics have contended there’s a very good reason for all the bureaucracy, of course: to stall the investigation until after this year’s gubernatorial campaign and avoid any damage to the electoral prospects of Gov. Perry, who allowed Willingham’s execution to go forward despite questions about the quality of the evidence.  

The Innocence Project hopes the commission’s eventual report on Willingham will identify the kind of flawed arson evidence that may have wrongly convicted hundreds of Texans, many of whom are still in prison.

Toward that end, Saloom would like to see the Willingham panel conduct business in public. “Police often say the crime happens when people think they’re beyond public view,” he said. “The same goes for policy making.”

But Bradley made clear that the Willingham panel will meet behind closed doors. When he talked with reporters after the meeting, Bradley proved himself the least-effusive elected official in Texas. And that might be putting it mildly.

Asked about a timeline for completing the Willingham investigation, he said—in perhaps the quote of the year: “However long it takes, that’s however long it takes.”

He did add, “I think the commission is moving forward as quickly as they can.”

Asked how he would describe what happened during the meeting, Bradley responded, “Well, you were here. You heard it. You can report it.”

When asked why the Willingham panel would meet behind closed doors, he said, “Because the ability to resolve and discuss these issues requires that we have those discussions in private.”

Asked when the panel would meet in private, Bradley said he didn’t know. And with that, he excused himself to catch a plane.

The full commission will gather again in three months.

Meanwhile, more than 700 people remain in Texas prisons on arson convictions—perhaps a third or even half of them convicted, like Willingham, by discredited forensic evidence.

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.