Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Perry scuttles Willingham arson inquiry with new Forensic Commission appointment: John Bradley


It'd be hard to make this up; it seems more like caricature or some tale from days of yore out of Tammany Hall, but it's actually today's news: Governor Rick Perry has ousted the head of the Texas Forensic Science Commission, which had displeased him by soliciting what turned out to be damning expert opinion regarding the Cameron Todd Willingham case (in which supposedly expert arson testimony used to convict Willingham and justify his execution was later debunked by modern science). The case has drawn national attention since the release of expert testimony solicited by the commission followed by the publication of a widely cited New Yorker article last month.

As the new chair, Perry chose (of all people) Williamson County District Attorney John Bradley, who prides himself on being one of the most outspoken proponents among Texas prosecutors of a sort of neoconservative, tough on crime philosophy. The Statesman called Bradley "a tough-on-crime politically connected conservative." I've certainly heard him called worse! ;) (Hi John!)

Bradley's first act as chair? To cancel a hearing Friday where the Commission was scheduled to hear a report from experts they've paid tens of thousands of dollars to analyze the science behind Todd Willingham's conviction. No word on whether or if the public hearing might be rescheduled. At a minimum, one imagines Bradley wants more time to prepare a full cross-examination of Dr. Beylers.

Perry is the only governor ever to appoint members to the Forensic Science Commission so this signals his displeasure, one assumes, with his prior appointees. Perry has said previously he believed Cameron Todd Willingham was guilty even if the arson science presented at his trial was wrong.

I understand if the Governor and Mr. Bradley don't think the Commission should have launched the investigation in the first place (though that was sort of its raisson d'etre), but shutting down the inquiry now seems like closing the barn door after the horses have run away. Dr. Beyler's (quite damning) findings have already been made public, so this move cannot succeed at suppressing the truth.

This really took a lot of chutzpah! But the governor can't rewrite history by simply stopping the Commission from making official findings. That ship has sailed. More people read that New Yorker article than will ever read anything the Commission publishes, so concern about polishing the state's image on the Willingham case is both belated and misdirected. We'll see what happens next; the ball is in Mr. Bradley's court.

The Commission had also planned a series of roundtable discussions around the state (pdf) beginning in November; no word on whether the leadership change will also affect those plans.

UPDATE (Oct. 1) Lisa Falkenberg at the Houston Chronicle likens the move to Nixon's Saturday Night Massacre. A Tarrant County prosecutor who was among the commissioners replaced told the Star-Telegram, "I feel like a jilted lover, except that he's prettier than I am." See more initial coverage from the New York Times, the Austin Statesman, the Dallas News, AP, Kuff, Eye on Williamson, and Burnt Orange Report.


Hook Em Horns said...

And this surprises who?? Rick Perry is the lowest of the low. Texas government is HIS to do what HE WANTS WITH IT. This slime-ball needs to go!!

Anonymous said...

I think the commenter on summed it up pretty well with Mel Brook's line from "Blazing Saddles": "We've got to protect our phoney-baloney jobs, gentlemen!"

Scott Cobb said...

Call Perry to protest his outrageous action (512) 463-1782.

Sign the petition to Governor Rick Perry and the State of Texas to acknowledge that the fire in the Cameron Todd Willingham case was not arson, therefore no crime was committed and on February 17, 2004, Texas executed an innocent man.

doran said...

I'm having an Inigo Montoya moment, here. Perhaps I don't fully understand the meaning of "chutzpah," but if I do, it is not the correct word. The correct word would have been "stupidity." Sen. Hutchinson will make hay of this. Perry has monkeyed with the system in a way that most voters in Texas will not appreciate.

Grits, I hope you will post the dates, times and places of the future meetings of the Forensic Science Commission, and of those round table discussions which John Bradley derailed. I know, I know: We can find that on a State of Texas website somewhere. It is much easier to get it here.

But, if the FSC has a website, let us know what it is, please.


doran said...

Now I'm having an Emily Latilla moment. I found the FSC website: it was right there at the end of that link you provided.


doran said...

The agenda for the FSC meeting of October 2, that which was scullted by Mr. Bradley, indicates that the Commission has received a final report from Dr. Beyler. That makes it a record which can be obtained under the Texas open records act, does it not?

Anonymous said...

Bradley is "Mr. DWI". Since the TFSC is in charge of accreditation of labs, etc, watch all of the safeguards in protecting good science go away. I bet anyone will be able to test blood for DWI cases now with no real science behind the way it is tested.

Anonymous said...

The Texas Police State marches on!

Anonymous said...

Was Sharon Keller not available?

Anonymous said...

Wow. You ought to contact some people with the American Academy of Forensic Science and get their thoughts on this. Does that jackass really think people are too stupid to see through what he is doing here. Well, maybe in Texas...

Karo said...

Grits you are messing with your readers who don't click the links and don't realize that the terms had expired for the replaced commissioners. This is nothing more than yellow journalism which leads people to believe this is some secret last-minute double-cross.

"[...] one imagines Bradley wants more time to prepare a full cross-examination of Dr. Beylers."

Really, what is so outrageous about the three new members having more than 2 days to prepare for such an important public hearing?

Grits I get the feeling that if the three new members DIDN’T have more time to prepare you’d be here complaining that Mr. Bradley and the other new commissioners didn’t appreciate the gravity of their responsibilities.

Karo said...

I found the following interesting exclusion on the About Us page on the website of the TFSC:

"The term [forensic analysis] does not include: latent fingerprint examinations; a breath test specimen or the portion of an autopsy conducted by a medical examiner or licensed physician."

So the Texas Forensic Science Commission intentionally avoids some of the most problematic and unreliable "forensic sciences." Nice.

Karo said...

Grits why didn't you tell us that the man whom Mr. Bradley replaced on the TFSC was affiliated with the Innocence Project of Texas?

Samuel Bassett was a speaker/panelist at the 2009 annual conference of the national Innocence Network of which the Innocence Project of Texas is a member. Bassett's former law partner is none other than Bill Allison who, in addition to being a damned fine criminal defense attorney, also happens to be president of Texas Center for Actual Innocence.

While I'm sure Mr. Bassett was doing a fine job as chairman of the Texas Forensic Science Commission, there is an apparent conflict of interest that could certainly be used to undermine any pro-innocence findings of this commission.

Innocence folks need to look on the bright side of this move by Governor Hair. Bradley has a lot of energy and is outspoken about his beliefs. If the evidence for innocence is good enough to convince him you will have an ally with tough-on-crime credentials.

It may take longer this way but if a Bradley-led commission finds real flaws in the system people WILL notice. I have been paying attention to Bradley for years and I have seen he is not the medieval crusader that some of you believe. When it comes to the actual administration of his office he has mellowed with age and is developing a pragmatic approach to justice. Yeah sometimes he still wants to "make an example" of someone in high profile cases but in the day-to-day stuff he isn't reaching for convictions unsupported by good evidence. If you convince him the evidence is not good he will not use it, and if you can convince him, he may well convince several other Texas DAs.

doran said...

Karo, you rascal you. Always trying your hand at spin

In the first place, if Mr. Bassett had a conflict of interest for the kind of reason you present, why hasn't John Bradley a conflict of interest for the same kind of reason?

In the second place, why did the Guv wait till a day or two before the scheduled hearing to replace those three members? Answer: Probably because all three had been in line for re-appointment to their positions. This is from an article in the Houston Chronicle: "A spokeswoman for the commission, which is headquartered at Sam Houston State University in Huntsville, said the outgoing members' two-year terms technically expired on Sept. 1." If Perry's concern with their performance had any basis in anything other than his own political future, he would have made replacement appointments earlier, rather than waiting till the last moment.

Nice try, Karo, but no cigar.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

Karo, doran points out why your spin is BS, so I won't be repetitive - Perry's timing and the delay of the hearing are definitely politically motivated. Deal with it.

Also, it's a lie to say Bassett had a conflict of interest. He was asked to speak to the Innocence Network in his role as TFSC chair - that's not a conflict, and neither is the fact (of which I was unaware) that his "FORMER" law partner is Bill Allison - Allison's group is a university clinic and NOT a member of the Innocence Network. It's amazing you think NO evidence can exonerate an arsonist but the most BS, half-assed allegation is enough to create a conflict of interest among those who disagree with you about Willingham.

I'll bet you agreed with the CCA the judge-prosecutor affair in the Charles Hood case wasn't enough for a new trial, right? That would fit right in with the double standard in your various comments these last few weeks. No evidence is enough if it benefits a defendant, but the slightest shred of tangential, non-relevant evidence is enough to smear someone associated with an exoneration. Nice!

Finally, Bradley can't be a Nixon goes to China figure on bad forensics if the Commission simply doesn't meet - word is there won't be any more hearings at least until after the primaries.

Anonymous said...

Wow ! Perry is making lots of news. Raw Story reports that "Texas governor stops review of possible wrongful execution".

Anonymous said...

respose to last poster:

yep, same story, which makes me wonder why Grits didn't frame the headlines around the larger issue of wrongful executions (which relates to the Innocence Project, in a way), but rather chose to frame the headlines in terms of a pissing contest, bureaucratic squabble...???

Gritsforbreakfast said...

6:12, it's because I cover these issues every day so my readers know who John Bradley IS. Raw Story is a more generalist site.

Also, for the record, this blog is unaffiliated with the Innocence Project in any way. They're my former employer but that's it. This is a personal blog; I write about what interests me regarding Texas criminal justice politics and policy. Hence the different focus from Raw Story or even the Innocence Project. I ain't them.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

BTW 6:02/6:12, I noticed you (accidentally?) left the same verbiage in the comments to this post,, but all in the same comment. Here you present the statements as different commenters playing off each other though they obviously have the same author. Trolling is one thing, but try to avoid having phony conversations with yourself. This is cheap, cowardly hackery; please stop.

R. Shackelford said...

I have a couple of friends who used to be DA's in Wilco. When Grits writes a particularly amusing bit about Bradley (amusing in a black, hope devouring kind of way), I send it to them and hope they will say something to make me feel better about this filthy snake pit. "Do something Mr. Smith Goes to Washington-esque!", I cry. They just laugh mirthlessly and tell me to move the hell out of there as fast as I can. I really wish someone with a solid grasp of what the justice system is actually supposed to be would run that rabid dog out of office next election.

Anonymous said...

Bad timing Governor Good Hair.

More importanrly, this move was nothing more than a political stunt on your part.

The member's terms expired 9-1, yet you waited almost one month to usher in their replacements.

Why not do what you really want and do away with the commission altogether?


Karo said...

Give me a break.

You guys would be feigning the same outrage if your Innocence Network insider Bassett had been replaced by prosecutor Bradley on 9/1 instead of on 9/30. The issue of timing is a red herring; your complaint it with personnel.

Just like you would be crying a river if the meeting had not been postponed except then you're complaint would be that a third of the commissions couldn't possibly be prepared for such an important hearing.

Quick, somebody call the Wambulance.

doran said...

The Mighty KARO. Another one of them omniscient conservatives who knows exactly what the rest of us are thinking and what we would have done IF.......

Karo, the important point is to try to stay current and with a good grasp on reality. What we have done is out Perry as a political hack who is willing to use a State Agency for his own political purposes, and out you as an apologist for him.

Anonymous said...

Question to all here who dislike John Bradley, why do you suppose he has run unopposed the last two elections?

Karo said...

I was a freaking Obama delegate but somehow anyone that disagrees with you is conservative? Sure. Doran has only managed to out himself as a fool with false presumptions.

Perry has always been a political hack who is willing to use a State Agency for his own political purposes. How exactly do you think he became governor? Don't you recall his relationship with Governor Shrub?

I support reforms to increase the amount of real justice the Justice System but you knee-jerk guys are going "all-in" on a weak case and crying wolf over Willingham will make it harder to get real justice when the time comes.

Anonymous said...

Question to all here who dislike John Bradley, why do you suppose he has run unopposed the last two elections?

I don't know anything about Bradley but I've seen the same thing happen in Smith County. Jack Skeen was the DA for many years and I don't know that he ever had an opponent despite the fact that his office routinely engaged in all types of misconduct. In 2000 there was a series of articles in the Houston Chronicle about misconduct in his office. But, Houston is a long ways from Tyler and most people in SMith County don't read the Houston paper. The local paper is his best friend and refuses to print anything negative about him or the DA's office. He was appointed to a district judge seat by Perry a few years ago (despite his well document unethical behavior) and has not had an opponent for that office either.

Why? I think there are a few reasons. First, Smith County has a well controlled and very powerful political machine. Anyone who dared oppose it would be attacked in many ways. Most people who may be able to run are afraid to. For example, you have to be an attorney to run and any attorney who opposed Skeen would surely find himself ostracized in the legal community. Second, as mentioned above the local press won't report on anything negative about Skeen. As a judge Skeen doesn't even try to hide his bias. He isn't any more ethical now than he was as a DA. But, most voters don't know. Skeen uses his incestuous relationship with the local paper to get his name in the paper as often as possible (at least 3 or 4 times as much as any other judge in the county). And of course its always positive. Most voters are simply ignorant of what is really going on in the courthouse. Another factor is that this political machine goes out of its way to keep law enforcement on its side so they are assured of having the support of the considerable number of law enforcement officers in the county.

I don't know about Bradley, but I know in Smith County the combination of a powerful political machine, a biased press, and ignorant voters have kept a man who should be in prison himself in office.

Anonymous said...

10:28 You are right on. That;s why I chuckled at the comments made by Mr. Munoz at TCJS in the following Grits post. He clearly does not know who runs the county courthouse and the criminal justice system. And you hit a home run when regarding your comment about ignorant voters. They are so uniformed when it comes to electing these local officials.

More jail inspections unannounced, TCJS creating catalog of best practices
"What we are advocating, although we can't tell you how to do it, is if you want to reduce your jail population, find alternative ways to deal with inmates. Talk to your district judges; talk to your district attorneys; talk to your probation officers; talk to anybody and everybody that has control over alternatives, either sentencing or incarceration."
Munoz advocated holding judges accountable for speedy dockets. "The sooner you get that inmate out of jail the sooner you are going to reduce overcrowding." He said that also goes for alternatives to jail time as a sentence, for processes like electronic monitoring.

Anonymous said...

I guess Karo should set up a 1-800 number along with Ms. Cleo as evideced by his ability to read people's minds!


Had this decision come on 9/1, I'm not sure we'd be having the same dicussion. The facts remain the same, no matter how you'd like to spin it, Karo.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

Karo, it's comments like the one you left at 9:11 about Bassett - pure, fact-free smear - that let us all know you're not actually a serious voice.

The gal who phoned in the hoax phone call to the YFZ Ranch was an Obama delegate, too. That doesn't make her, or you, a credible person.

Anonymous said...

Who voted this idiot into office? Oh, yeah! It was the idiots in Texas!!! ha!

Karo said...

Grits the title YOU gave this thread mentions Bradley but not the timing.

Are you seriously claiming that the timing is the real outrage here rather than the replacement of Innocence Network Bassett with Der Kommissar Bradley?

Would you also be as outraged on the timing if Bassett had been replaced by Barry Scheck?

My guess is that the REAL outrage has yet to come. The study of arson investigations may lie outside the scope of TFSC's charter. If Bradley scuttles the whole thing on this basis then you've got some REAL outrage instead of this manufactured propaganda.

Anonymous said...

Is anyone surprised by the govenor's actions? Shouldn't be! Wouldn't it be great is Texas would secede from the union! Then they could go back to back woods justice and just start lynching people that they suspect of crimes...why bother with expensive investigations and trials?

doran said...

O Mighty KARO:

You've told us from whence our outrage springs; you've told us what we were really thinking about; you've told us what we would have done if some fantasy future of yours had come to pass. BUT, you haven't told us why Perry did what he did and when he did. So, O Might KARO, apply to the Guv's thought processes, such as they are, the same skills you have applied to others on this thread, such as they are, and tell us why Perry did what he did when he did what he did.

Karo said...

Doran I already agreed with your assessment that Perry is a political hack who is willing to use a State Agency for his own political purposes.

Anonymous said...

Yesterday I read an article about Todd Willingham's case in the September 7, 2009 edition of The New Yorker. Last night I happened upon "Dead Man Walking" on television. The coincidence cannot be ignored.

I am upset and outraged that an innocent man was executed and that the current Texas governor is manipulating the system to meet his own agenda. Every citizen of Texas should be outraged and I hope they are planning to storm the Capitol and express themselves.

Ryan Paige said...

I remain skeptical that the guy who proclaimed that post-conviction DNA testing as "attempt[s] to manipulate the criminal justice system" has any kind of open mind in relation to science or just about anything really.

Karo said...

Next time we create a Forensic Science Commission shouldn't it be staffed by, you know, scientists.

I wonder why Perry ever appointed any lawyers to this post?

Gritsforbreakfast said...

Karo, you're the one who won't listen to the scientists, your comment at 3:17 is a bad joke.

As for the timing vs. the pick, you're the only one who's splitting hairs. Perry appointed someone who would squelch the investigation instead of further it and the timing was specifically to stop Friday's hearing. I object to all of it. It was a politicized, ham handed power play.

It's a good thing you're trolling anonymously because your arguments are so bad and self-contradictory you're starting to embarrass yourself.

Lucy Frost said...

This is outrageous! Get out the torches & pitchforks.

Ryan Paige said...

"Next time we create a Forensic Science Commission shouldn't it be staffed by, you know, scientists."

Or, you know, when it hires scientists to study an issue for them, perhaps they should not cancel the meetings (and question whether they'll ever take place) in which they get to hear the science?

I can't imagine that Gov. Perry wanted scientists on this commission, either.

Ryan Paige said...

"Next time we create a Forensic Science Commission shouldn't it be staffed by, you know, scientists."

Oh, and from the Star-telegram article today:

"Sam and I were the two lawyers. Everybody else was a scientist," Levy said.

Anonymous said...

Leaving aside the criminal justice aspects of all this - and it's not that I don't feel strongly about Perry's actions as suggesting an attempt to cover up a wrongful conviction - this speaks volumes about his contempt for the professionals who took on the task of serving on the Commission, apparently giving their services pro bono. This would be no way to treat paid employees - to treat those doing voluntary public service sends an horrendous message to anyone considering volunteering to help others. Not least lawyers, who are urged to do pro bono service. Shockingly bad manners and bad judgment, Governor Perry.