New Forensic Agency Head Bradley: Best to Meet in Secret

Get Smart's "Cone of Silence"
Get Smart's "Cone of Silence"

UPDATE — Speaking at the Senate Criminal Justice Committee meeting this morning, chairman John Whitmire told John Bradly his desire for secrecy would be rejected. Transparent, public oversight key to responsible governing, Whitmire says.

After a few decades of covering government as a reporter, working in government as a staffer and working as a consultant to candidates and officeholders, I have yet to encounter a single circumstance in which decisions were improved by a secret meeting. Not one time.

Secret government meetings serve mostly to make those attending them feel more important than the people left outside.

So, it is disappointing that Williamson County prosecutor John Bradley, the new head of the Texas Forensic Science Commission — the agency gutted by Gov. Rick Perry on the eve of a public hearing into the execution of Cameron Todd Willingham — says right off the bat that he wants new rules that provide for secret investigations.

Williamson County District Attorney John Bradley, the new chairman of the Texas Forensic Science commission, says he will recommend, among other things at the Senate committee hearing, that during an ongoing investigation, the commission should be allowed to meet in private to discuss the matter being investigated and that reports to the commission on an investigation be withheld from public release until the commission concludes its deliberations.

“It’s not a good idea to conduct an investigation in a public forum,” Bradley says.

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Unequal Justice: Perry Admits Medina Role in Willingham Execution

David Medina, Gov. Rick Perry’s general counsel when Perry denied a stay of execution to Cameron Todd Willingham, was later cleared of arson-related charges in the fire that destroyed his home. Medina is now on the Texas Supreme Court. His wife, Francisca, was cleared of arson charges based on an independent forensic and arson investigator’s report. The expert found the fire might have been accidental.

Willingham was convicted and sentenced to death for a fire that killed his three children. A report from an independent forensic and arson investigator sent to Perry and Medina 88 minutes before the execution said the fire was probably accidental. Perry and Medina ignored it as irrelevant. Perry has subsequently mocked independent scientists.

Now Perry has publicly admitted Medina’s role in the 2004 Willingham execution. There could be no greater or more tragic example of our unequal, two-tiered system of justice. I don’t know if the Medinas set the fire or not. I don’t know if Willingham was guilty, although all the independent experts say the fire wasn’t even arson, meaning no crime was committed.

What I do know is that a scientist’s report in the Medina case was given so much weight that the indictment was dismissed. In the Willingham case, such a report was not deemed important enough to delay an execution. Perry and Medina were not asked to pardon Willingham or find him not guilty. They were asked to wait a while before executing him. That’s all.

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Geese and Gander: When Is An Arson Expert Legit?

gooseganderwebGov. Rick Perry mocked arson experts who said the scientific evidence in the Cameron Todd Willingham case was flawed.

Perry’s former general counsel, David Medina, and his wife Francisca have a different opinion of independent forensic experts, at least when it’s their skin that’s saved. They escaped criminal prosecution because of them.  Medina was Perry’s counsel in February, 2004, when the first of three experts faxed his report to the governor’s office questioning the Willingham evidence — 88 minutes before Willingham was killed. If read by Perry, Medina or other’s in Perry’s office, the report made no difference. Perry refused to stay the execution.

I think it’s safe to say that Perry and the Medinas are quite happy that the courts gave the experts hired by Francisca Medina’s attorneys more attention than Medina and Perry gave experts hired by the Texas State Forensic Commission or others who questioned the forensic evidence in the Willingham case. What’s good for the geese is good for the geese, gander be damned.

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Whitmire to Call Senate Hearing on State Forensics Commission

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:

The Death Penalty as Political Gang Initiation

Death Penalty What If?In America, capital punishment is a national gang initiation rite. Typically, an aspiring politician is accepted into our Crips-and-Bloods, two-party political arena only after declaring for the death penalty.

Execution as gang initiation may have happened, but mostly it’s a recurring urban legend. Gang initiates are said to be cruising the streets with their headlights off, ready to assassinate passing motorists who flash their lights as a “turn-on-your-lights” courtesy. False warnings of random initiation killings in WalMarts seem to move faster than light.

Untrue as most of these stories are, there’s something in the national consciousness that makes us vulnerable to them. Whatever that something is, it also plays a role in real-life executions carried out by the state on behalf of its citizens  — us, whether or not we support the death penalty.

The 2004 Texas execution of Cameron Todd Willingham, a man experts say was innocent of the arson deaths of his three daughters (the fire that killed them wasn’t even arson) has brought capital punishment back to media prominence. Right-wingers, including Texas Gov. Rick Perry, who fired three board members of the state agency investigating Willingham’s execution, will want to reduce the case to a black-and-white shouting match over the death penalty.

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Perry Terminates Board Members Investigating Execution

nooseGov. Rick Perry, like Pilate before him, washed his hands of any responsibility for the execution of a man experts say was innocent. And now Perry has fired three board members of the state agency investigating the controversial 2004 execution of Cameron Todd Willingham. If ever there was a story that the Texas press corps should to pursue to the point of saturation coverage, this is it.

“Business as usual,” Perry told the Associated Press the firings were “business as usual.” No kidding. Last time it was just some university regents who no longer supported him. This time it was a group of people investigating whether Perry’s government killed an innocent man.

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