Site Overlay

Austin American-Statesman Editorial:Governor grants stay of scientific evidence


Governor grants stay of scientific evidence

Editorial Board

Saturday, October 03, 2009

To claim that Gov. Rick Perry may be playing politics with the Texas Forensic Science Commission is to level a serious charge.

And, considering what’s at stake here, it might understate the case. Politics would be trivial compared to what’s on the line.

It is not overstating the case to say the future of the death penalty in Texas — and perhaps nationwide — could be determined by this relatively new, pretty-much-unknown state panel.

Here’s why. In 1991, Cameron Todd Willingham of Corsicana was convicted of setting a house fire that killed his three young children. He was sentenced to death and was executed Feb. 17, 2004 — number 320 of 441 killed since Texas resumed executions on Dec. 7, 1982.

“Yeah,” Willingham said when asked if he had any final words. “The only statement I want to make is that I am an innocent man, convicted of a crime I did not commit. I have been persecuted for 12 years for something I did not do. From God’s dust I came and to dust I will return — so the earth shall become my throne. ”

The transcript is on the Texas Department of Criminal Justice Web site. It ends with this note: “Remaining portion of statement omitted due to profanity.”

For all the world, it looks like yet another guilty man’s final and profane declaration of innocence.

But Willingham’s case came up for review long after he was executed in the name of the State of Texas. In August, Craig Beyler, a fire scientist hired by the Texas Forensic Science Commission, reported that Willingham was convicted based on bad science, unproven theories and arson investigators’ personal bias.

Beyler said the evidence fell short of proving arson. And if there was no arson, what proof was there that Willingham killed his kids?

The next portion of this troubling drama had been scheduled for Friday’s meeting of the Texas Forensic Science Commission. But the meeting was scrapped Wednesday shortly after Perry — who has said he sees no reason to doubt the conviction — shook up the board.

Perry intervened by naming Williamson County District Attorney John Bradley — a prosecutor with an as-tough-as-they-come reputation — to replace Austin defense lawyer Sam Bassett as chairman.

Bassett’s term ended Sept. 1, as did two other commission members replaced Wednesday by Perry.

Keith Hampton of Austin, vice president of the Texas Criminal Defense Lawyers Association, said Perry’s decision to put Bradley in charge of the commission at this crucial time “looks an awful lot like a governor who’s interfering with a science commission because the science demonstrated that we’ve executed an innocent person.

“To pick one of the most partisan people in the state and just anointing him as presiding officer is rather breathtaking,” Hampton said.

Yes, it is. But state Sen. Juan “Chuy” Hinojosa, D-McAllen, an author of the legislation that created the commission, is willing to give Bradley the benefit of the doubt.

“He’s tough and very pro-prosecution, but I also know him to want a criminal justice system that people can believe in. And if he thinks that someone was wrongfully convicted, my sense is that he will say so,” Hinojosa said.

State Sen. Rodney Ellis, D-Houston, a Senate leader in criminal justice issues, expressed concern about the timing of the appointment but added that Bradley should work hard to silence the doubters. “I’m sure (Bradley) is cognizant of the taint this process has put on the forensics commission and will work hard to restore its credibility.

“Otherwise,” Ellis noted wryly, “the Forensic Science Commission will become known as the Political Science Commission.”

Bradley, who has shown aggressive dedication to all posts he has held, called forensic science “a great gift to 21st-century criminal justice, both in the way that it has shown us who is innocent as well as convicted the guilty .”

Bradley said he canceled the Friday meeting, including Beyler’s scheduled appearance, so he could get up to speed on the agency’s work. Sadly, as it pertains to Willingham, there is no reason to rush, but the investigation should continue.

And for the other inmates on death rows around the country, there is good reason to make sure Texas gets this one right — even if it is ex post facto.

Perry recently dismissed Beyler’s report with a comment about “the latter-day supposed experts” on arson. Perry said his review of the case before the execution showed “overwhelming evidence that he was in fact the murderer of his own children.”

If science proves otherwise, though, more than one Texan might want to blurt out the kind of profanity-laced statement that Willingham opted for in his final moments.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *