HARLINGEN — A state agency reshuffled by Gov. Rick Perry as it prepared to review a report linking bad science to the execution of an innocent man spent its first meeting hammering out policy language and trading jabs over commission structure.
No mention was made during Friday’s meeting of the Texas Forensic Science Commission of the controversial report concerning Todd Willingham, put to death in 2004 at the age of 23 for murdering his children by burning down the family home.
The report by arson expert Craig Beyler put the investigation into question, as did a report presented to Perry hours before Willingham’s execution.
Death penalty opponents accused Perry of replacing three members of the commission, including Williamson County District Attorney John Bradley as chairman to replace defense lawyer Sam Bassett, to scuttle an investigation that could hurt Perry during the Republican primary.
Bassett told media he felt pressured to back off on the investigation, and the blogosphere in recent days buzzed with speculation that Bradley chose to meet in distant Harlingen to deter media coverage.
Perry’s responded that the three terms expired. He said he stood by the execution of Willingham and that the media jumped to conclusions about the report.
Bradley said he chose Harlingen out of respect for the members’ geographic diversity — the newest member, Dr. Norma Farley, is medical examiner for Hidalgo and Cameron County. He said he also wanted state Sen. Juan “Chuy” Hinojosa, who wrote legislation creating the committee, to open the meeting.
A few groups who were active against wrongful convictions made it to the meeting, including the New York City-based Innocence Project, and the Texas Death Penalty Abolition Movement. Members of the latter group sat at the side of the small meeting room with signs reading “No More Cover Up!”
The Innocence Project is tracking two cases reviewed by the Commission, director Stephen Saloom said.
“Clearly there’s been a huge delay, and clearly some of the commission members would have liked to have taken them back up today,” he said. “But the chair put other matters on the agenda.”
That agenda started with introductions, followed by a history of a fledging agency that didn’t accept complaints for review until June 2008. As Bradley has explained in an editorial on the commission’s Web site, the commission lacked standards and procedures including definitions of professional negligence and misconduct.
Tensions sparked as the commission worked painstakingly through approving those policies and procedures, debating everything from if and how a vice chair should be named, whether the commission had the authority to define misconduct or negligence, or if it were right for the chairman to have published an agenda and editorial without the commission’s full approval.
Bradley said he had to make some decisions without a quorum to move things along without violating the state’s open meetings law.
“We should continue to follow more of a parliamentary procedure … where the chairman is essentially another vote,” Commissioner Sarah Kerrigan said.
The Commission was expected to return to case reviews at its next meeting, scheduled for April 23 in Fort Worth.
Future meetings were planned for Fort Worth, Houston, Austin, and San Antonio. Harlingen, deemed inconvenient, was left out of the mix.