A Willingham Coverup?

Perry ditches three members of the Forensic Science Commission.


Dave Mann

The exercise of raw power is truly stunning to behold.

Gov. Rick Perry today has replaced three members of the Forensic Science Commission, which is investigating whether Texas—under Perry’s administration—executed an innocent man in 2004.

The Statesman and the AP are reporting that one of three deposed commissioners is chairman Sam Bassett, an Austin defense attorney.

Perry has installed as chairman John Bradley, the district attorney of Williamson County and one of the state’s most notorious tough-on-crime advocates.

Bradley’s first act? He has canceled Friday’s schedule meeting at which the commission was supposed to discuss the case of Cameron Todd Willingham, an apparently innocent man executed in 2004. Willingham was convicted of killing his three kids by starting a 1991 house fire. His case was recently featured in the New Yorker.

The commission last year hired a national arson expert to study the Willingham case. The expert, Craig Beyler, released his report in late August. He concurred with the other fire experts who have looked at the case: the fire was accidental, and Willingham almost assuredly innocent.

The commission planned to hear from Beyler at Friday’s meeting. The commission also planned to release a final report on the case early next year. That raised the possibility that Texas would be the first state to officially admit executing an innocent man.

The timing couldn’t have been worse for Perry, who’s in a tough race for reelection. Asked recently about the case, Perry stood by his decision to execute Willingham, as the Dallas Morning News reported:

Even without proof that the fire was arson, [Perry] added, the court records he reviewed before the execution of Cameron Todd Willingham in 2004 showed ‘clear and compelling, overwhelming evidence that he was in fact the murderer of his children.’

That makes no sense. if there was no arson, there was no crime, and Willingham was, by definition, innocent.

The Commission’s inquiry of the Willingham case figured to pose mounting political problems for the governor. And Perry has never been crazy about the idea of the Forensic Science Commission, which the Legislature created in 2005.

It’s worth noting that Bassett’s term had expired, and the governor has the power to appoint whomever he chooses.

But Perry’s actions today certainly appear an attempt to bottle up the Willingham investigation.