Friday, October 02, 2009

Junk politics and junk science: Rick Perry and Todd Willingham

I'm not the only one who thought Governor Perry's decision to replace the chair and two other members of the Forensic Science Commission was an outrageous example of politicizing Texas' investigation into junk science. In a post titled "The Cover Up," Paul Burka writes:
It’s not hard to figure out why Governor Perry removed the chairman and two members of the Texas Forensic Science Commission just before its scheduled meeting: He was about to be embarrassed, and not just in Texas but nationally. The commission was going to hear a report from an arson expert that the investigation leading to the conviction and execution of Cameron Willingham for the murder of his three daughters was flawed. The case has received national attention because of the possibility that Texas executed an innocent man on Perry’s watch. The removal of the three members forced the cancellation of the meeting and prevented the report from being heard. ...

Let’s call this what it is: a cover-up. The new chairman, Williamson County district attorney John Bradley, is a political ally of Perry’s who [is] famously tough on crime. It would be a conversion of mythic proportions if he were to agree with the investigators’ criticism. He now controls when the commission will meet, and you can bet that the report will not be heard or discussed in a public forum before the March 2 primary.
The Dallas News editorialized that "Gov. Rick Perry looks like a desperate man with his decision to jettison the chairman of the state's forensic science panel." At the Houston Chronicle, Rick Casey contacted state Sen. John Whitmire who told him the Texas Senate Criminal Justice Committee would be questioning Bradley's decision to cancel the hearing:

“I know John well,” said Houston Sen. John Whitmire, who chairs the Senate Criminal Justice Committee and pushed for the Forensic Science Commission after Houston's police lab blew up into a national scandal.

Whitmire said Bradley worked for that committee during legislative sessions when he was an assistant district attorney.

“I've never questioned his integrity,” Whitmire said. “He is very transparent.”

Whitmire said he talked to Bradley on Thursday morning and is “taking a wait-and-see approach” in hopes that “he won't let Perry's politics pull him down.”

“I told him, John, this is an opportunity to show what you're made of,” he said.

But Whitmire also said he will schedule a committee hearing in about a month to ask Bradley in what direction he plans to take the commission. One likely question, said Whitmire: Will Bradley reschedule the Willingham arson matter before the March primary?

That likely will a laboratory test of the hypothesis that Perry appointed him as a political puppet.

I'm definitely looking foward to Whitmire's hearing on this. Like Burka, I find it nearly unimaginable that the hearing will be rescheduled before the primary. Indeed, according to the New York Times Bradley is considering shutting down the investigation altogether:

Mr. Bradley said he did not know if he would continue the inquiry into the Willingham conviction that his predecessor had started. He said he wanted to consult with the lawmakers who created the commission about its mission.

Of course, the Willingham investigation precisely fits with the commission's "mission." The real problem is that the inquiry's outcome doesn't mesh with the governor's campaign themes. Perry told the Times it was "premature" to exclude arson in the Willingham case, but in reality all the same evidence was available when the governor approved Willingham's execution in 2004: Admitting this wasn't arson isn't "premature" but in fact egregiously belated.

David Grann, the author of a major New Yorker article on the case, commented on the replacements on the magazine's blog yesterday, calling the process "tainted." At The Atlantic, Ta-Nehisi Coates writes "I'm not even surprised. Again, it's very hard for people to admit error. They will lie, cover evidence, kill the messenger before admitting that they're wrong. The higher the stakes, the harder the heart, and the deader the mind."

I particularly enjoyed coverage of the incident from the Fort Worth Star Telegram. A Tarrant County prosecutor kicked off the commission told the paper, "I feel like a jilted lover, except that [the Governor is] prettier than I am." The same fellow said, "I felt like a decaying fish they were trying to dispose of [but] .... Since the job doesn't pay anything, I've been thrown out of better places."

This whole episode has recalled for me when the Governor eliminated the Criminal Justice Policy Council with a line item veto in 2005 because then-director Tony Fabelo wouldn't craft his findings to fit the Governor's agenda. Perry seemed to get a pass on that cynical maneuver back then, but this time it's coming back to bite him in the national press.


Karo said...

Yesterday someone accused me of trolling when I wrote this:
"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."

And today we read this:
"Mr. Bradley said he did not know if he would continue the inquiry into the Willingham conviction that his predecessor had started. He said he wanted to consult with the lawmakers who created the commission about its mission."

I'll admit to feeling a little bit smug.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

Karo, you were accused of trolling (as you well know) for entirely other reasons - essentially smearing Sam Bassett with lies and mischaracterization. Trying to pretend THIS was the reference is just another example of, well, trollish behavior.

As for you feeling "smug," that term describes virtually everything you've written on this topic. What else is new?

Gritsforbreakfast said...

BTW, part of the Commission's "mission" is "Investigating, in a timely manner, any allegation of professional negligence or misconduct that would substantially affect the integrity of the results of a forensic analysis conducted by an accredited laboratory, facility or entity." To claim the Willingham investigation doesn't fit under that charge is pure obfuscation. It obviously does.

Anonymous said...

I couldn't help but be reminded of a classic exchange from "12 Angry Men" when I read Karo's 8:03 post.
Juror #3: ASSUMED? Brother, I've seen all kinds of dishonesty in my day, but this little display takes the cake. Y'all come in here with your hearts bleedin' all over the floor about slum kids and injustice; you listen to some fairy tales; suddenly you start gettin' through to some of these old ladies... well, you're not getting through to me, I've had enough! WHAT'S THE MATTER WITH YOU GUYS? You all know he's guilty. He's got to burn! You're letting him slip through our fingers.
Juror #8: Slip through our fingers? Are you his executioner?
Juror #3: I'm one of 'em!
Juror #8: Perhaps you'd like to pull the switch?
Juror #3: For this kid? You bet I would!
Juror #8: I feel sorry for you... what it must feel like to want to pull the switch.

Juror #3 = Karo.

doran said...

I'll take a chance here: Karo has never seen 12 Angry Men, or even knows what it is.....

Ryan Paige said...

Perry's actions prove that he now believes he allowed an innocent man to be executed. He might as well have admitted that he's afraid of the commission's report and will desperately do whatever he can to cover it up.

He wouldn't bother to do that if he didn't now know that he allowed an innocent man to be executed by the state of Texas.

Anonymous said...

"E pur si muove"

Anonymous said...

This is dispicable, intellectually dishonest, and well, par for the course for Perry. What else have we come to expect? Integrity? Standing up for what is right? No, just whatever it takes to get to stay in office. "Truth is worth more than pride..." Neil Finn

Anonymous said...

Whitmire needs to go further. They need to slap that piss ant Perry back hard. Call for the clemancy records in the Willingham case. Hold a public review of process or lack there of. Let's find out exactly what Perry did and did not do.
Whitmire has been doing some good things for the state. Some things we can all be proud of. Things that will make a difference long after we are gone. He should not stand aside and let Perry bring shame to that system.

dirty harry said...

You folks are really anxious to lay this at the feet of the governor. However, this was in front of lawyers for the plaintiff, a zealous district attorney whose job is to present the TRUTH no matter who it favors, and an appellate court. Lots of people dropped the ball here long before it got to Perry. It should have never made it to Perry.

Anonymous said...

Federal Funds? An interesting take.

Anonymous said...

Bradly transparent? Are you kidding me?

Anonymous said...


Nobody is saying that many people failed at various levels in Willingham's case.

The fact remains that Perry was the last line for relief in this case as neither the Texas CCA or SCOTUS intervened.

Anonymous said...

I'll admit to feeling a little bit smug.

Why? Because you're as wrong as Bradley? Who is famously wrong often?

Not much to be smug about, if you ask me.

Anonymous said...

Perry may not have indicted the guy or prosecuted him or sat on the CCA but he definitely is trying to cover-up the truth and that is the despicable part of this tragedy.

dudleysharp said...

Perry has been in politics a long time.

He knew the political fallout for this would be bad and he knew what the media reaction would be.

So, why did he do it?

Changing the members at this late date only brings more controversy and more light to the case, not less.

Interest and suspicion in this case is, now, greater than it would have been had the hearing gone forward.

It is not like the case will go away.

We've got three later reports, highly critical of the fire investigation and testimony and two of the original fire investigators highly critical of the Beyler report.

The bottom line on the 3 newer forensics reports is, primarily, a flashover (which Fogg says never happened) makes an arson fire indistinguishable from an accidental fire, meaning we may never know, for sure, if it was arson or not.

If the hearing isn't rescheduled before the election, Perry will get nothing but horrible press and his opponents will use this against him, which is already happening and which was easily predictable by Perry.

So, what does Perry benefit from this, except more aggravation?

Why did he do it?

Calling it a cover up is downright silly.

Perry can't cover up anything in this case.

There must be something else going on here.

Anonymous said...

dudlysharp: your analysis is too complicated.

Perry will fade the bad press, 'cause in Texas no one in the Repub primary cares what the MSM says.

But Perry, et al, would have a hard time with a "State of Texas Commission Finds State and Gov Allowed Innocent Man to Die."

He and the death machine will do anything to prevent that headline. Until that drops it's all speculation.

dirty harry said...

I agree Perry didn't do himself any good with his last minute reappointments. I just don't understand why he did it. Surely, he knew this would cause much more of an uproar and raise more of a stink for his opponents to use. I think it would be much simpler to just say: "Hey, I relied on the findings of the court and jury, and I didn't see anything that could be construed as new evidence that would affect the outcome." But instead, he pulled the ol' switcheroo. I agree with the poster above. Something else is going on here.

Anonymous said...

Perry appointed the best for his "cover-ups".

Bradley is well experienced.

Anonymous said...

Not that I disagree with your sentiments, Scott, but you're full of poo. It's real funny how you can be so precise about forensics when scrutinizing others but apply such a loose standard to yourself. I'm talking about your little gimmick of outing your detractors as all the same person when they post anonymously, like Karo.

An IP address does not identify any particular person, only the company providing internet access. For instance, if you look at my IP it will tell you it is RoadRunner out of Herndon, VA. That doesn't mean I live in Virginia, it's just the corporate headquaters for Time Warner internet...that's all it means. An IP address is not caller ID, despite what uninformed people tell you.

The only way to know for sure is to get a court order directing the internet access provider to trace the post back to a specific street address. But with wireless networking you can't even prove that beyond a reasonable doubt unless you can scan the hard drive the information originated from.

A good majority of your posters choose to remain anonymous. If I were you I'd drop that little game of pretending like you know who everyone wreaks of the same ham-handed, over-bearing governmental intrusions you so often write about.

I'm sure you are aware that Blogger has an option to require commenters to use a registered name to weed out the nuisance anonymous posters. Why not use it if you're gonna be such a little bitch?

Scott Cobb said...

Perry probably replaced the commission members because he wanted to delay the final report until after the primary.

He probably made the political calculation that he could survive the controversy caused by replacing the commission members, but he could not survive a final report by the commission concluding that there was no scientific basis to support that the fire was arson, because that would mean he was governor when Texas executed an innocent person. That is a level of confirmed incompetence that could lose him the next election.

Anonymous said...

BTW, part of the Commission's "mission" is "Investigating, in a timely manner, any allegation of professional negligence or misconduct that would substantially affect the integrity of the results of a forensic analysis conducted by an accredited laboratory, facility or entity." To claim the Willingham investigation doesn't fit under that charge is pure obfuscation. It obviously does.

Uh, wait a minute ... is Karo right? Accreditation didn't come into being until after the HPD lab fiasco, right? Willingham's case was from long before that. Is that going to be a problem?

Karo said...

Grits: I apologize for writing in the previous thread that you should have disclosed the relationship between Mr. Bassett and the Innocence Network. I mistakenly believed that you were currently a consultant to the Texas Innocence Project and assumed you were holding back important details. I was wrong.

Also please note that I didn't "smear" Sam Bassett. I referred to him as an "Innocence Network insider." I think that is a fair characterization since his personal web page embraces the fact that he was a speaker/panelist at their annual conference last spring. However insignificant you consider his participation; his web page leaves little doubt that Mr. Bassett considered it an honor.

I also pointed out that his former law partner is the famous Bill Allison, teacher in the highly regarded Criminal Defense Clinic at UT Law and President of the Texas Actual Innocence Project. Apparently you also find this factoid utterly insignificant and unworthy of mention. Perhaps it is a simple coincidence.

For the record, I never implied that Mr. Bassett was biased or otherwise unfit to head the TFSC. I wrote that "there is an apparent conflict of interest that could certainly be used to undermine any pro-innocence findings of this commission." [emphasis added] This isn't just splitting hairs, its an important distinction for the point I was trying to make.

Let me try to frame another way...

Imagine Jesse Jackson is addressing a stadium full of NASCAR fans and he says "I love bacon, it is delicious!"

Although truer words have never been spoken there would be plenty of NASCAR fans who will nonetheless disagree; not because of the message, but because of the messenger.

Now imagine that Sarah Palin is addressing the same fans and she also says "I love bacon, it is delicious!"

Do you get my point here?

Bradley is the Sarah Palin of the "Law & Order" wing of Texas justice. His personal history makes it impossible to write off his opinions as those of an "Innocence Nut." (Notice that I'm not saying that Bassett is a nut but, however unfair it may be, the evil Republican noise machine can frame him as one.) That can't be done with Bradley. Grits, if the science truly says what you believe it says, then Bradley's pragmatic streak will force him to acquiesce.

Doran and assorted haters: It is frustrating when y'all try to categorize my comments in a sort of GW "you're with us or against us" simplistic sort of way. We don't precisely agree on the details but the differences are mere nuances; specific opinions may diverge but our overall views are congruent. This discussion is a microcosm of the problems faced by progressives when attempting to forge a unified assault on the status quo.

Anonymous said...

dudleysharp and dirty harry may be onto something...

We may be thinking that the Willingham report was the reason for the ousting, but what else was going to be discussed at the Oct 2 meeting?

Anyone know what case #0915 is about? The fired TFSC member Aliece Watts apparently was reviewing it...

doran said...

Karo, karo, karo.....

Do you think about what you write before, rather than after, you hit "Publish Your Comment"?

"Doran and assorted haters: It is frustrating when y'all try to categorize my comments in a sort of GW "you're with us or against us" simplistic sort of way."

I can tell you for sure, Karo, that if you refrained from this kind of "smear" and hyperbole --- "Doran and assorted haters" --- I would not assume nor would I state [which I haven't, BTW] that your comments and your thought processes are simplistic and George Bushian.

Karo said...

Doran it wasn't just you.

I have been called a trolling conservative with a poor grasp on reality who has no problem with a judge sleeping with the prosecutor. I have been accused of using my Ms. Cleo style omniscience to spin apologies for Governor Perry and also smear Sam Bassett. To top it all off I am such a rube that I'm not familiar with Twelve Angry Men.

Its true I wasn't explicitly called "George Bushian" but perhaps you can see how I got that impression?

doran said...

Yes, I can see how you may have got that impression.

Can you see how others of us may have got the same impression?

Hook Em Horns said...

Rick Perry has been "playing" Governor and "playing" politics since "W" left town. I can only hope that Texas has had enough of this leather-faced, perfect-hair idiot from Paint Creek.

Anonymous said...

To Anonymous at 1:10:00 pm ---

you wrote that

"An IP address does not identify any particular person, only the company providing internet access. For instance, if you look at my IP ".

Actually, you can get alot more information from an IP address than what you are stating, depending on the address. You can do more than a simple trace route. The trace route is only one tool for analyzing an IP address. There are other methods for finding out who owns a block of IP addresses. For example, if an IP address is registered to a local government, the trace route in many cases goes beyond the backbone provider such as RoadRunner. An email address can be analyzed to see what server sent the email, so to use the local government example again, if someone working from a Austin local government computer sends an anonymous email FROM their own computer, the IP address will trace back to the email server used by the Austin local government, and if they have their own email servers, that can be quite revealing in and of itself. One may not know who the individual was who sent the email (without the court order to trace it further), but one can be reasonably assured that someone working for the city is sending anonymous emails.