HARLINGEN — A state commission investigating claims that faulty arson science led to the 2004 execution of a Corsicana man met for the first time Friday since a controversial membership shakeup temporarily derailed its probe.
The Texas Forensic Science Commission spent hours hammering out new policies and procedures but made no mention of Cameron Todd Willingham — whose case has rallied death penalty opponents and led critics to accuse Gov. Rick Perry of playing politics in his political appointments.
“The commission has become a political football in the past few months, instead of identifying best practices and eliminating junk science,” said Sen. Juan “Chuy” Hinojosa, D-McAllen, who helped author the legislation that created the panel in 2003. “They have a great responsibility because they hold the integrity of our justice system before them.”
The panel was last scheduled to meet in September to receive a report from independent arson expert Craig Beyler which was critical of the expert testimony used to convict and sentence Willingham to death in 1992.
Found guilty of setting the house fire that killed his three daughters, Willingham maintained his innocence up until his execution. But since his death, his case has received attention from the New York-based Innocence Project and national media outlets ranging from CNN to The New Yorker magazine, all of which have characterized it as one of the most likely instances in decades of an innocent man being put to death.
Perry has repeatedly said he was convinced of Willingham’s guilt when he refused to commute the man’s sentence.
But two days before the commission was set to review the Beyler report in September, the governor opted not to renew appointments of three of the panel’s members — including its chair.
The membership shakeup prompted the meeting’s cancellation and temporarily halted discussion of the Willingham case. Although his advocates were hopeful the case would be brought up at Friday’s meeting, new commission Chairman John Bradley — a Perry ally who also serves as the Williamson County district attorney — did not include it on the agenda as an item for discussion.
He opted instead to focus on developing formal practices to govern the commission’s investigations and orienting new members Dr. Norma Jean Farley, chief forensic pathologist in Hidalgo and Cameron counties, and Tarrant County Medical Examiner Dr. Nizam Peerwani.
But as death penalty abolitionist Gloria Rubac watched the hours-long discussions of bureaucratic procedure, she felt certain the decision to avoid the most controversial topic currently facing the commission was intentional.
“I think it’s a cover-up by Perry,” she said. “The (gubernatorial) primary is in March, and their next meeting is not until April.”
Willingham’s name may never have come up during formal conversation, but his presence lurked everywhere in the small hotel conference room.
Protesters sat silently on the sidelines holding signs bearing his mug shot and proclaiming the stalled investigation a “cover-up.” Several panel members seemed to allude to the Willingham probe in terse exchanges with their new chairman.
Dr. Garry Adams, a veterinary pathologist from Texas A&M University, questioned why several “weighty matters” deserving of the commission’s attention had been left off the agenda.
Later, while reviewing a new multi-step process that would now govern all new investigations, Dr. Sara Kerrigan — a forensic toxicologist from Sam Houston State University — demanded assurances that new procedures would not set back probes already in progress.
Bradley responded by assuring the panel they could be brought up at future meetings, including the commission’s next one in April.
“Yes, they will be on the agenda,” he said. “Yes, they will be discussed.”
That promise seemed to satisfy some of the new chairman’s prickliest opponents in attendance Friday, including Innocence Project Policy Director Stephen Saloom.
“The commissioners made clear that they intend to maintain their authority on the commission and get back to the Willingham case as soon as possible,” he said.