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Petrash: Political use of raw power is stunning» Wichita Falls Times Record News

Petrash: Political use of raw power is stunning » Wichita Falls Times Record News
October 4, 2009

On Wednesday Gov. Rick Perry replaced three of the nine member Forensic Science Commission, which is investigating whether Texas, with Governor Perry’s oversight, executed an innocent man in 2004. The state commission doesn’t have the power to rule on guilt or innocence, but was expected to release a report next year on the validity of the arson investigation used to convict him. While Perry has the authority to appoint or dismiss his appointees, several of the board members have served more than one term and had their appointments renewed.

Politically connected, and one of the state’s most notorious tough-on-crime advocates, Williamson County District Attorney John Bradley replaces defense lawyer, Sam Bassett of Austin, as chairman of the Texas Forensic Science Commission. This comes at a crucial time for the agency, during the closing months of a politically sensitive and potentially explosive investigation into the 2004 execution of Cameron Todd Willingham. Why was Bassett replaced? No answer from the governor’s office.

Bradley’s next act was to cancel last Friday’s scheduled meeting at which the commission was supposed to discuss Willingham’s case. Willingham was convicted of killing his three children by starting a 1991 house fire. Putting his life on the line, Willingham insisted he was innocent and refused an offer to plead guilty in return for a life sentence. Now arson forensic scientists are agreeing with Willingham.

Baltimore-based arson expert Craig Beyler, who was hired by the commission, concluded the arson finding was scientifically unsupported and investigators at the scene had “poor understandings of fire science.” His report has bolstered arguments from advocacy groups that Willingham was innocent and wrongfully executed. In fact, the experts concluded that there was no arson at all, that the cause of the fire was accidental, such as faulty wiring. Even Edward Cheever, one of the state deputy fire marshals who had assisted in the original investigation of the 1991 fire, acknowledged “at the time of the Corsicana fire, we were still testifying to things that aren’t accurate today,” he said. “They were true then, but they aren’t now.

Barry Scheck, of The Innocence Project fame, has obtained all the records from the governor’s office and the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles. “The documents show that they received the report, but neither office has any record of anyone acknowledging it, taking note of its significance, responding to it, or calling any attention to it within the government,” Scheck said. “The only reasonable conclusion is that the governor’s office and the Board of Pardons and Paroles ignored scientific evidence.” The Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles is the one body with the authority to recommend a commutation of a death sentence to life in prison. Governor Rick Perry must then approve such a recommendation.

However, the board members do not even have to review Willingham’s materials, and usually don’t debate a case in person; rather, they cast their votes by fax—a process that has become known as “death by fax.” Between 1976 and 2004, when Willingham filed his petition, the State of Texas had approved only one application for clemency from a prisoner on death row. More than one appellate judge has called the clemency system in Texas either “a legal fiction” or woefully inadequate. At least, Texas needs this system overhauled and reformed.

Perry’s decision to dismiss Texas Forensic Science Commission board members calls his ethics, and his judgment, into question. He may have had the legal authority to do what he did, but, the use of that authority in this case, is wrong. By appointing new, inexperienced board members, he obviously disrupts the investigative processes of the commission. Now there’s a huge learning curve, for new members of the commission, which will take valuable time. And for what reason?

His actions appear to be nothing more than an intrusive stall tactic during an election primary season. Should it be proven that Texas executed an innocent man, this finding would cause Perry much political grief in his campaign. He’s disrupted an investigation, delayed justice and has done so for, what appears to be, his own political gain. Could there be a stronger conflict of interest? What if the commission decides not to review the case further? Is Perry’s misuse of his power actually an obstruction of justice?

Governor Perry’s misuse of his authority highlights the fact that he has probably been in office too long. Governor Perry missed a great leadership opportunity. He should have done the right thing by letting the commission conclude its work. He could have challenged it later if he didn’t agree with it. By so doing he would have been a tall figure standing for justice and renewing faith in our legal system. Instead he’s renewed calls for Texas clemency reform and cast a darker shadow on Texas because of our application of the death penalty.

Dallas Morning News article asks “What level of forensic ineptitude and guesswork is tolerable when it comes to sending a person to death row? The answer is none. Executing an innocent person is as heinous an outcome as willful capital murder itself.”

Larry Petrash is a member of the Times Record News community editorial board.

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