Samuel Bassett, whom Perry replaced on the Texas Forensic Science Commission two weeks ago, said he twice was called to meetings with Perry's top attorneys. At one of those meetings, Bassett said he was told they were unhappy with the course of the commission's investigation.Meanwhile, the Governor has filled the final slots on the commission, so chairman John Bradley is free to recommence the group's inquiry, having said earlier he wanted to wait until the full panel was appointed. The valid excuses for not moving forward soon are quickly running out.
"I was surprised that they were involving themselves in the commission's decision-making," Bassett said. "I did feel some pressure from them, yes. There's no question about that."
A Tribune investigation in 2004 raised the possibility that Perry, who was governor when Cameron Todd Willingham was executed, approved the lethal injection of an innocent man. That story revealed fundamental flaws in the arson theories used to convict Willingham.
In a clemency plea four days before the execution, Willingham's attorney raised questions about the forensics in the case. Perry has said he examined the information. But he did not delay the execution. ...
The Forensic Science Commission was created by the Texas Legislature in 2005 to improve forensics in Texas as well as investigate specific complaints. The Willingham case was among the panel's first complaints.
According to Bassett, the governor's attorneys questioned the cost of the inquiry and asked why a fire scientist from Texas could not be hired to examine the case instead of the expert from Maryland that the panel ultimately settled on.
Following the meeting, a staffer from the general counsel's office began to attend the commission's meetings, Bassett said.
And although Bassett said he had hoped his work on the commission would focus solely on forensics, the meetings he described likely will add to questions about Perry's moves.
Bassett told the Tribune the governor's attorneys at the meetings were then-General Counsel David Cabrales and Deputy General Counsel Mary Anne Wiley, one of Perry's top advisers on criminal justice issues. Cabrales, now in private practice, and Wiley referred questions to the governor's press office. A Perry spokeswoman said the governor was not aware of the meetings and called them "regular, routine and expected."
On the flip side, the Governor is stonewalling open records requests from the Houston Chronicle related to Todd Willingham's 2004 execution. We already know from the precedents regarding Alberto Gonzales' recommendations about executions to then-Governor George Bush that these documents are public records, so expect to see this information become public down the line, either when the AG rules or after the Governor appeals the AG decision to a district court.
Finally, perhaps half a dozen readers have emailed me links to this post by Glen Smith at Dog Canyon claiming Gov. Perry committed a crime by replacing the chair of the commission with a highly partisan figure whose first act was to shut down a high-profile investigation into junk arson science. IMO that critique is unjustified. Smith's error lies in portraying Gov. Perry as having "fired" the commissioners in question, when really he simply appointed new people when their terms were up, which is a technical but meaningful distinction when evaluating whether the Governor overstepped his legal authority. That his purpose was to shut down the investigation, and that his actions were self-serving and even unethical, I have little doubt. But that doesn't make them illegal, just extremely political and distasteful.
MORE: From TPM Muckraker. Also more on the Coverdell grant program discussed by Glenn Smith from the Innocence Project of Florida's Plain Error blog.
UPDATE: Christy Hoppe at the Dallas News says Chairman John Whitmire will convene a hearing of the Senate Criminal Justice Committee on Nov. 10 to discuss the Forensic Science Commission and it's recent cancellation of all scheduled meetings and programming.