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San Antonio Express News Editorial: Perry errs with panel shake-up

Perry errs with panel shake-up

San Antonio Express News Editorial Board

October 7, 2009

There’s good reason to believe the state of Texas put Todd Willingham to death in 2004 for a crime he didn’t commit. Law enforcement and prosecutors in Corsicana determined Willingham started the 1991 fire that consumed his home and killed his three daughters. A review of the evidence, however, shows that determination was deeply flawed.

The Willingham case was one of the first taken up by the Texas Forensic Science Commission. Created by the Legislature in 2005, the commission sets standards for forensic analysis and investigates allegations of negligence or misconduct that could affect the integrity of such analysis.

The commission hired a nationally renowned fire expert to review the forensic evidence in the Willingham case. His report was a scathing indictment of junk science that pinned a prosecution on Willingham while rejecting obvious alternative explanations for how the fire started.

Two days before the commission was to hold a public hearing on the case and hear testimony from fire expert Craig Beyler, Gov. Rick Perry replaced three members of the panel, including its chairman. Perry’s pick to head the commission, Williamson County District Attorney John Bradley, abruptly canceled the hearing, saying he needed more time to become familiar with the case.

The explanation from the governor’s office that the commissioners’ terms expired on Sept. 1 doesn’t hold water. Among the thousands of gubernatorial appointments to boards and commissions, holdovers are common for months or even years. No reasonable explanation exists for Perry to sack the forensic science commission’s leadership at this crucial stage and impede its progress in the Willingham review.

That review is not a proxy for the death penalty debate. It is about how bad science can empower an overzealous prosecution.

The review also isn’t about politics — at least it shouldn’t be. It’s about improving the system of justice in Texas by determining how a highly questionable case made it past jury members, a judge, more appellate judges, the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles and, ultimately, the governor.

Perry’s shake up of the commission has, unfortunately, injected politics into the matter. Perry, who declined to commute Willingham’s sentence to life in prison, faces a strong primary challenge from Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison.

The evidence that Perry is trying to delay or even quash a commission finding that could prove to be detrimental to his re-election effort is at least as sound as the evidence that sent Todd Willingham to the death chamber in Huntsville.

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