A state panel investigating allegations of misconduct and negligence in forensic analyses that led to a 2004 execution hammered out its procedures Friday, but did not resume its long-delayed investigation of the arson evidence in that case.
Cameron Todd Willingham was convicted and executed for the deaths of his three daughters in a 1991 house fire near Corsicana. Last summer, the Texas Forensic Science Commission received an arson expert’s report that the investigation leading to his conviction was so flawed that its finding could not be supported.
Two days before the panel was scheduled to discuss the report and question its author, Gov. Rick Perry replaced three members of the commission, including its chairman. The new chairman, John Bradley, the Williamson County district attorney and a Perry ally, canceled that meeting.
If the investigations prove Willingham did not kill his children, it would be the first known wrongful execution in Texas. Perry’s opponents have criticized the September reshuffle, saying it was a calculated move to push discussion of the case past the March Republican primary.
The delay and Friday’s agenda, which failed to move forward any of the pending investigations, led to some terse exchanges between commissioners and Bradley. Some questioned his authority to speak for the commission, noting an editorial he wrote immediately after his appointment without consulting long-term commissioners.
“I apologize if any toes feel like they were stepped on,” Bradley said.
When Commissioner Garry Adams mentioned that there were “weighty” items awaiting commission action, Bradley answered flatly that “our actions today are limited to what’s on the agenda.”
After the meeting, Adams, a veterinary pathologist at Texas A&M University, said he expected the commission’s cases to be back on track at the next meeting, scheduled for April 23 in Fort Worth.
Bradley assured commissioners that the Willingham case investigations would be considered at the next meeting.
“Yes, they will be on the agenda. Yes, they will be discussed,” he said.
The reshuffle delayed the commission’s progress on cases. Adams noted that one of Perry’s appointees resigned for personal reasons weeks after his appointment and a replacement was not named until December.
Gloria Rubac, an advocate for the abolition of the death penalty who along with several other women held a portrait of Willingham, called the meeting a “cover-up for Governor Perry.”
Rubac said she connected Willingham with the pen pal who eventually got the Innocence Project, a New York group that focuses on overturning wrongful convictions, involved in his case.
“I always believed he was innocent,” she said.
Much of the five-hour meeting was spent discussing the basic procedures that guide most decision-making bodies. Commissioners also approved definitions of professional misconduct and neglect. Most of the commissioners’ objections to the draft procedures targeted wording that would seem to give more power to the chairman; after some changes, they unanimously approved the draft.
The Innocence Project had sent letters and a legal memo to commissioners before the meeting arguing that the commission did not need to take time to develop new procedures.
Stephen Saloom, the group’s policy director, said after the meeting that “the rules Mr. Bradley proposed create needless bureaucracy, steer the commission away from the Legislature’s intent, limit the commissioners’ authority and vest more power in him as the chair.”
Under the guidelines approved Friday, authority still lies with the majority.