Whitmire to Call Senate Hearing on State Forensics Commission

Cameron Todd Willingham
Cameron Todd Willingham
Cameron Todd Willingham

Little noted in the coverage of Rick Perry’s obstruction of a state investigation into the execution of a man experts say was innocent was Sen. John Whitmire’s statement that he would call a hearing by the Senate Criminal Justice Committee he chairs to look into the issue. According to the Houston Chronicle’s Rick Casey:

…Whitmire also said he will schedule a committee hearing in about a month to ask Bradley in what direction he plans to take the commission. One likely question, said Whitmire: Will Bradley reschedule the Willingham arson matter before the March primary?

That likely will [be] a laboratory test of the hypothesis that Perry appointed him as a political puppet.

Last week, Perry scuttled the Texas Forensic Science Commission hearing into the evidence that convicted Cameron Todd Willingham, scheduled for last Friday.  The governor, without warning,  replaced three of his four appointees to the nine-member commission. The commission had been scheduled to hear from nationally recognized arson expert Craig Beyler, who had issued a report in August questioning the evidence in the Willingham case. Beyler wrote:

The investigators [in Willingham’s case] had poor understandings of fire science and failed to acknowledge or apply the contemporaneous understanding of the limitations of fire indicators. Their methodologies did not comport with the scientific method or the process of elimination.

Sen. Whitmire said he would bring Williamson County prosecutor John Bradley, Perry’s newly appointed Forensic Science Commission chairman, before his Senate committee. Craig Beyler should also testify, saying publicly what Perry stopped him from saying last week. A legislative committee shouldn’t pre-empt an executive branch function — even if it’s been obstructed by the governor.  But Beyler has already publicly issued his report. Legislators have a right to hear it from the horse’s mouth.

Also somewhat lost in the outrage over Perry’s Nixonian action were statements from two of those let go from the Forensic Science Commission, Fort Worth prosecutor Alan Levy and Commission Chairman, Sam Bassett, an Austin lawyer. Neither man had prior knowledge that the axe was falling on their heads, and that raises further questions about Perry’s motives. Perry said his action was just “business as usual,” noting that the terms of the agency officials had expired. Operating under business as usual, their dismissals would not have been kept secret from them.

According to the San Antonio Express-News’ Scott Stroud, Basset was surprised.

Austin lawyer Sam Bassett got the call late Tuesday from Doris Scott, Gov. Rick Perry’s appointments manager.

“She said ‘Thanks for your service, he’s making new appointments to the commission and taking it in a new direction,’” Bassett recalled.

The Fort Worth Star-Telegram reported that Alan Levy was just as surprised.

“His reasons for doing it, I have no idea,” said Levy, a chief prosecutor in the Tarrant D.A.’s criminal division who has sent numerous defendants to death row. “I feel like a jilted lover, except that he’s prettier than I am.”

“I’ve got my own thought, but I don’t have any way of knowing,” Levy said. “It’s just odd. I’ll assume that this was just part of the normal process; but if it was, it certainly wasn’t handled the way it should have been.”

Missing in action was Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchiston, Perry’s GOP primary opponent. She’s made one weak statement, to the Dallas Morning News:

“Why you wouldn’t at least have the hearing that the former member suggested, to find out what the facts are, when a man has been executed and now the facts are in dispute – just like DNA has given more tools to determine the facts,” she said. “I am strongly for the death penalty, 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.”

Hutchison declined to say whether she believes Willingham was innocent.

“I answered your question,” she said. “To the best of my knowledge, I’ve answered your question.”

New Forensic Science Commission Chairman Bradly says he wants to get up to speed on the issue before deciding whether to reschedule the Willingham hearing. He can get up to speed very quickly if he’ll just read news coverage of the issue.

So far, that coverage has been extensive. Behind the scenes, however, some GOP types are working hard to spin down the issue. Texans support the death penalty, they say, and voters won’t care about this issue come March. Really? An innocent man is executed by the state, the sitting governor blocks an investigation of the tragedy, and voters won’t care?

The press has been aggressive so far in its coverage. Time takes its toll, though, and we’ll have to see if the intensity continues. Here is some other notable coverage.

From CNN:

The Forensic Science Commission began investigating the Willingham case in 2008, hiring Maryland fire investigation expert Craig Beyler to examine the evidence used to convince a jury the fire that killed Willingham’s three daughters was deliberately set. Levy said Thursday he told the governor’s office “that it would be disruptive to make the new appointments right now.”

“The commission was at a crucial point in the investigation,” he said. Asked about the future of the Willingham investigation, he said, “I don’t know if it will ever be heard.”

Levy, a top prosecutor in Fort Worth, Texas, said he had asked to remain on the commission, but received no response from the governor’s office. Sam Bassett, the panel’s former chairman, said he also asked to remain.

From the Texas Observer’s Bob Moser:

If it wasn’t clear before, it is now: Gov. Perry is unfit to make life-and-death decisions on behalf of the citizens of Texas. That’s one sad fact that surely has been proven beyond a reasonable doubt.

From the Dallas Morning News Editorial Board:

Gov. Rick Perry looks like a desperate man with his decision to jettison the chairman of the state’s forensic science panel.

The panel’s post-mortem look at the Cameron Todd Willingham arson-murder case goes to the heart of Texas justice – including the governor’s role in it – and whether an innocent man was railroaded into the death chamber at Huntsville.

Since Perry signed off on the Willingham execution in 2004, his own accountability is at stake. So perhaps it’s no surprise that two days before the Texas Forensic Science Commission was to proceed with the case this week, Perry replaced the chairman and set things back.

This has the stink of avoidance for political reasons. It sends the message – intentional or not – that the governor was displeased with the speed and direction of the inquiry…

…No, a painfully thorough look at the evidence is exactly what’s called for, with no more malodorous delays.

Dallas KRLD radio news talk host Scott Braddock interviewed Kerry Cook, who spent 13 years on death row before his conviction was overturned.

The Texas Observer’s Dave Mann, who’s groundbreaking work on bad arson science can be found here, here, and here, was interviewed by NPR’s Robert Siegel about the Willingham case.

Here’s the CNN news story:

Author: Glenn W. Smith

Glenn W. Smith has spent the past 30 years in journalism and politics, where he’s made a name for himself as a writer, campaign manager, activist, think tank analyst and, as Daily Kos founder Markos Moulitsas says, a “legendary political consultant and all-around good guy.” “There’s no one like him,” says author George Lakoff. CNN commentator Paul Begala says, “He has unmatched experience, a graceful pen (or pixel nowadays) and deep insight into the best and worst of us.” Novelist Sarah Bird speaks of his “lucid and lyrical” prose. And, she says, he’s fun. Huffington Post founder Arianna Huffington says Glenn writes with “grace and abundant humor” and “uses his colorful experiences in Texas to enlighten us all.”

Smith led Ann Richards’ successful 1990 campaign for Governor of Texas. He worked for former Texas Lt. Gov. Bill Hobby and U.S. Senator Lloyd Bentsen. Earlier, Smith was a political reporter for the Houston Chronicle and the Houston Post. He’s coordinated national campaigns for groups such as MoveOn.org. In 2004, he authored the highly acclaimed book, The Politics of Deceit: Saving Freedom and Democracy from Extinction. He also wrote Unfit Commander, a book that detailed George W. Bush’s mysterious disappearance from military service.

In 2004, Smith was featured in the film, Bush’s Brain, a documentary about Karl Rove. Smith provided commentary on Rove’s role as then-President Bush’s senior advisor. He has made numerous media appearances with Chris Mathews on Hardball, Joe Scarborough, Brit Hume, and many others. He writes a regularly for top national web sites, including FireDogLake and Huffington Post.

As a senior fellow at George Lakoff’s prestigious Rockridge Institute in Berkeley he studied, wrote and taught on the power of metaphor and narrative in political communications. He also lectured on religion and politics at the Starr King School for Ministry in Berkeley. As a sponsor and organizer, he has pulled together numerous national events with progressive religious leaders. He also organized a celebration of Dr. Martin Luther King at Riverside Church in New York City as well as “Freedom and Faith” bus tours, which was a nationwide campaign for social justice and progressive values.

Smith’s play, Double Play, which explored American Western myths and legends, was held over to sold-out audiences. He’s even written and performed songs in the Americana tradition, such as his best-known song, “Helping Marty Robbins,” a tribute to his hometown, Houston.

Most recently, Smith is the creator of DogCanyon, a political and cultural web site covering state, national and global issues from a Texas perspective. DogCanyon is an exhilarating and unique site that gets the connections between politics and culture and explores both the personal side of politics and the ups, down, craziness and beauty of “life its ownself,” as humorist Dan Jenkins would say. DogCanyon offers heartfelt personal essays, hard-hitting political analysis, and, most importantly, laughs.

As Paul Begala said, Smith writes in “the finest, firmest, fearless tradition of Texas essayists like Molly Ivins.”

23 thoughts on “Whitmire to Call Senate Hearing on State Forensics Commission”

  1. Two quotes from Dr. Samuel Johnson apply here–
    “Nothing focuses the mind like a hanging,”and, “what we hope ever to do with ease, we must learn first to do with diligence.”

    Capital punishment is the ultimate application of the state power, and state’s obligation is to establish and maintain justice. The guilty must be punished, but an innocent man should never be executed. In other words, we have to get it right before we put the needle in.

    What would happen if an honest re-examination of the case were undertaken by the forensic science commission and found that Beyer’s conclusions were correct, thereby posthumously exonerating Willingham?

    I’d hope that the Governor would act like the strong leader we all know him to be, stand up, and admit that the justice system failed. I’d hope that he would take responsibility for signing off on the execution of a man now known to be innocent. Sure, such an admission would force even the staunchest death penalty proponents to blanch that the state had in effect committed homicide. Maybe we’d have a more open debate about the consequences to society of such an act. But no one would fault him for taking it on the chin for the state’s failure, and in fact, he’d be admired for his candor.

    It is Governor Perry’s fault that the initial investigation was flawed? Is it his fault that a jury found Willingham guilty based on that flawed evidence? Of course not.

    Is firing his own appointees to the Forensic Science Commission immediately before they were to undertake an honest re-examination of the facts the honest act of a courageous and honest man, or is it merely the reflexive move for political cover that we’ve all come to expect from our elected leaders when their job security is threatened?

    While the FSC members all serve at the Governor’s pleasure, and while their terms had indeed expired, the long established practice is that appointees continue to serve until the Governor has someone to replace them. So why did he fire them when he fired them?

    I really hope that Senator Whitmire can shine a bright light on on this.

  2. Glenn, you’re doing good work pulling together all the scattered threads of this story.

    Keep your Dog Canyon readers up to speed, and we’ll be there to help with calls letters and emails when it will help move the ball.

    This thing stinks to high heaven, and it is only the latest way the guv has found to humiliate and embarrass Texans.

  3. Does anyone know if any of the Democrats gubernatorial nominee wannabes have offered comments? I’m wondering about the possibility of this incident opening up a long over-due and honest conversation about the death penalty in general, especially in light of advances in forensics.

    I join your hope, MadDawgg, that Senator Whitmire will shine a very bright light.

  4. It is indeed tedious, Glenn, the need to continue the corrections regarding generalized views of Texans.

    By the way, Corrente has this piece up: “Rick Perry’s Handling of Willingham Case: Questions Go Back More Than 5 Years.” Sorry, I don’t know how to imbed a link, but the blog is at http://correntewire.com/.

  5. MadDawgg,

    Your excuses for the governor simply don’t work. It is the governor’s job to look at all available evidence before he allows someone in his state to be put to death. It is not optional. It’s what he is required to do. He is the last line of defense. He is the safety mechanism.

    And when he received Beyler’s report, he ignored it. He just didn’t have time, and besides, those guys are all guilty anyway, right?

    Well, it’s one thing for your average Texan to think that. It’s pathetic and wrong, but at least they aren’t charged with being the one, final person responsible for making sure innocent people don’t die.

    This is not an unfortunate mistake. This is negligent homicide. And the governor should be charged right now.

    There’s more on this case at the three links below:

    http://www.guerillapost.com/2009/10/update-on-willingham-report.html

    http://www.guerillapost.com/2009/09/john-jackson-defends-executing-innocent.html

    http://www.guerillapost.com/2009/09/executing-innocent.html

  6. Pete, no offense, but I can’t imagine how you could possibly think I was making excuses for the governor from my post. I wasn’t, and I think what happened needs a complete airing so that it never, ever happens again.

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