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CNN: Shakeup in Texas execution probe about Todd Willingham draws criticism, questions

By Matt Smith
DALLAS, Texas (CNN) — An investigation into claims that faulty evidence led Texas to execute a man in 2004 was at a “crucial point” when the state’s governor replaced three of its members this week, one of the three said Thursday.

Gov. Rick Perry’s shake-up of the Texas Forensic Science Commission came two days before it was to hear from the author of a scathing report in the case of Cameron Todd Willingham. That Friday session has been postponed indefinitely in the wake of Perry’s new appointments.

Willingham was put to death for killing his three daughters in a fire that arson investigators said had been deliberately set.

Yet death-penalty opponents say an impartial review of the case could lead to an unprecedented admission — that the state executed an innocent man.

Three reports, including one commissioned by the Forensic Science Commission, have concluded that arson was not the likely cause of the 1991 fire.

Perry’s office described the governor’s replacement of commission members as routine, saying the terms of Chairman Sam Bassett and commissioners Alan Levy and Aliece Watts had expired. But Levy said 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 told CNN on Thursday.

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, 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 on board.

Perry spokeswoman Katherine Cesinger said the governor “thanks the former appointees for their service.” Asked whether the governor wants to see the Willingham investigation go forward, she said, “That’s a decision of the commission.”

“The governor has made his position on this case clear, and has said that he has not seen anything that would cause him to think that the decisions made by the courts of Texas was not correct,” Cesinger said. “Beyond that, the business of the commission is up to the commission.”

Perry refused to issue a last-minute stay of execution for Willingham in 2004 and has said he remains confident that Willingham was guilty. So have authorities in Corsicana, south of Dallas, who prosecuted him for his daughters’ deaths.

The lead investigator in the case, Corsicana Police Sgt. Jimmie Hensley, dismissed subsequent reviews of the case as “Monday-morning quarterbacking” by experts unfamiliar with the whole of the evidence.

“I’m firmly a believer that justice was served,” he told CNN this week.

But Craig Beyler, the expert hired by the Forensic Science Commission to investigate the Willingham case, concluded that the ruling at the heart of Willingham’s conviction — that the fire that killed his daughters was set deliberately — “could not be sustained” by modern science or the standards of the time.

Beyler’s report also said that the state fire marshal who testified in Willingham’s trial approached his job with an attitude “more characteristic of mystics or psychics” than with that of a detective who followed scientific standards.

Wednesday’s personnel moves raised concern among Willingham’s relatives, who worked to avert hisexecution and to clear his name after his death.

“It sounds like someone made Governor Perry mad,” his stepmother, Eugena Willingham, said after hearing the news during an interview with CNN at her home in Ardmore, Oklahoma.

“I think it’s going to delay things,” she added. “It makes me wonder why.”

Neither Bassett nor Levy would say whether they believed political considerations were behind their replacement, though Bassett said in a written statement that the investigation should go on.

“In my view, we should not fail to investigate important forensic issues in cases simply because there might be political ramifications,” he said.

Others were sharply critical of Perry on Thursday.

Innocence Project co-founder Barry Scheck compared the shakeup to the Watergate scandal’s “Saturday night massacre,” when embattled President Richard Nixon sought the removal of a special prosecutor probing his administration.

“Rather than let this important hearing go forward and the report be heard, the governor fires the independent chairman and two other members of this commission,” Scheck said. “It’s like Nixon firing Archibald Cox to avoid turning over the Watergate tapes.”

The Innocence Project seeks to help prisoners who were wrongfully convicted. Its 2006 report on the Willingham case concluded that “an innocent man was executed.” That report led to Beyler being hired by the Forensic Science Commission to review the case.

And Scott Cobb, president of the Texas Moratorium Network, said Perry “saw the writing on the wall” — that the commission was “moving in the direction that he didn’t want them to go.”

Cobb said Bassett’s replacement, John Bradley, is “one of the most hard-line prosecutors in the entire state,” who had opposed efforts in the Legislature to restrict capital punishment.

“I really don’t have a lot of confidence with him on this commission,” Cobb said. On the other hand, however, “If he is convinced by the evidence, it would make an even bigger impact.”

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