Monday, October 12, 2009

Governor's aides sought to change direction of Forensic Commission investigation

The Chicago Tribune got former Forensic Science Commission chair Sam Bassett to open up and talk about the pressure Governor Perry's office put on him to influence the "direction" of the scientific evaluation in the Todd Willingham case:
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.

"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."
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.

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.


PatriciaAJones said...

You can see the 64 page report Dr. Beyler was to give to the TX Forensic Commission here:

Anonymous said...

Wasn't the whole point of this commission to be independent? This episode makes it obvious that we need to go back to the drawing board to get this commissions out from under the thumb of politicians. This is not independent oversight if RP can give the thing a makeover every two years.

PatriciaAJones said...

With Shades of Molly Ivins showing-"You dance with the one what brung ya". Most of these are Perry appointees.

Ryan Paige said...

Nobody goes to that much trouble to derail and cover-up an investigation into something they believe they did right.

Scott Cobb said...

The same information that Perry is now refusing to release has been released before. In 2003, there was an article by Alan Berlow in The Atlantic ("Texas Clemency Memos") that discussed and contained copies of execution day memos sent to Governor George W Bush from his staff, including many written by his legal counsel Alberto Gonzales.

According to Berlow: "Gonzales never intended his summaries to be made public. Almost all are marked CONFIDENTIAL and state, "The privileges claimed include, but are not limited to, claims of Attorney-Client Privilege, Attorney Work-Product Privilege, and the Internal Memorandum exception to the Texas Public Information Act." I obtained the summaries and related documents, which have never been published, after the Texas attorney general ruled that they were not exempt from the disclosure requirements of the Public Information Act."

Call Perry's office at 512 463 1782 and demand that he release all information.

Send Perry an email through his website here.

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.

Hook Em Horns said...

As predictable as the West Texas wind!

Hook Em Horns said...

It's time to take the Lone Star back from the "territorial governor" and his band of idiots!!!

Anonymous said...

This cannot be a surprise to anyone.

If Kay can't make some hay out of this, well, she really doesn't want to be governor.


Anonymous said...

"If Kay can't make some hay out of this, well, she really doesn't want to be governor."

She has hay in Washington and when you couple it with water it comes out smelling like bulls...

I suspect we could randomly select names from the telephone book and place people in these elected positions and we would be none the worse, maybe even better.

Anonymous said...

Did the 5th circuit rewiew the Hurst report? If so, does antone have a link to that opinion?

PatriciaAJones said...

This .pdf file shows a report from Gerald Hurst (of Austin) a nationally known arson expert. Please note the time stamp on the bottom of each page showing these documents were FAXed before the execution!

Karo said...

Patricia the timestamp shows 4:52pm on the day of the execution.

If you were representing a person whom you actually believed to be innocent would you wait until 8 minutes before 5pm? Only if you were incompetent. If you really believed the evidence warrants a new trial then you are working to get the condemned man off death row as soon as you have the evidence, not waiting for some last minute Hail Mary!

On the other hand, if you know your guy is guilty but you are motivated to embarrass your political opponents then of course you wait until the last minute just so you can later make headlines with a complaint that your arguments were ignored by blood-thirsty monsters.

This is the same dirty trick the anti-death penalty activists played on Judge Sharon Keller. In fact, the last minute frivolous filings had become common that the Court of Criminal Appeals finally made a rule against filing anything within the last 48 hours unless the attorney swears under penalty of aggravated perjury that it couldn't have been filed sooner.

I'm not defending Perry or Keller... as far as I'm concerned they can go share a bag of pretzels with Shrub if you know what I mean.

Anonymous said...

Karo, you ignorant slut.

The time stamp you refer to is from the document being faxed from the Texas A.G. office to Mike Scofield in the Govenor's office.

You will note the time stamp on Walter Reaves fax to Perry is 2:15 on Feb. 13. He mentions that Dr. Hurst is preparing an affidavit.

The signature page on the Hurst report bears two time stamps. One at the top of the page from Reave's machine at 2:45 Feb. 13 and another from the A.G.s office at the bottom of the page bearing the time stamp you refer to.

It's pretty damn clear that at least the Texas Attorney General's office recieved the Hurst report on Feb. 13. The same day it was prepared.