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Dallas Morning News Editorial: Perry’s Todd Willingham delay

Editorial: Perry’s Willingham delay

Dallas Morning News Editorial Board

Thursday, October 1, 2009

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.

Critics are on the mark in comparing it to President Richard Nixon’s “Saturday night massacre,” when he replaced top Justice Department officials as they were tightening the noose in the Watergate case. Perry’s heavy hand suddenly has that creepy Nixonian feel.

The unseated forensics chairman is a defense attorney who did not ask to be relieved of his duties when his term was up Sept. 1. The new chairman is a prosecutor with a hard-line reputation. Perry’s office has said picking a new chairman is a routine exercise of his appointment prerogative, just “business as usual.”

The Willingham case, however, is disturbingly unusual.

The forensics commission, created on Perry’s watch, singled out the Willingham case as one of its first to assess for flaws. An arson expert it hired produced a brutal appraisal of the original forensic work, which concluded that arson was the cause of a house fire in Corsicana that claimed the lives of Willingham’s three young children.

The expert’s report ridiculed an investigator in the case as claiming clairvoyance about the cause of fires. The expert said the Willingham work was oblivious to investigatory conventions and overlooked the obvious.

Bottom line, he said, is that the evidence does not support a finding of arson.

It was that bottom line that the forensics panel was to consider today at a meeting in Irving, but the meeting was called off. Members had been scheduled to review the report and seek a rebuttal from the State Fire Marshal’s Office. Interested parties from across the country are anxiously awaiting the state’s response.

Now we wait. For how long, we don’t know. The new chairman says he has to get up to speed on the case.

Perry has all but dismissed what the commission’s ultimate findings may be anyway. The governor has already told this newspaper that the evidence was “overwhelming” against Willingham.

How can any responsible person be so sure, short of a full airing of the facts? To secure a capital murder conviction, the prosecution had to prove arson, and it’s hard to imagine that jurors would not have reasonable doubt, given what we know today.

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

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