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Texas Governor Replaces Forensic Examiners

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Posted: September 30, 2009   12:00 AM

September 30, 2009 – Texas Gov. Rick Perry today removed three of the eight members of the Texas Forensic Science Commission (TFSC), which was set to hold a hearing on Friday to review an arson expert’s report on the controversial 2004 execution of Cameron Todd Willingham. The public meeting set for Friday has been cancelled.

Innocence Project Co-Director Barry Scheck called the move “troubling:"

“This is like the Saturday night massacre,” Scheck said. “The Commission, doing the job the Legislature intended it to, appointed an independent arson expert to examine the reliability of arson evidence in the case of Cameron Todd Willingham, who has been executed based on the original finding of arson. On Friday, the Commission was supposed to consider the expert’s report, which strongly indicates that the arson evidence underlying Willingham’s conviction and execution was completely unreliable and would raise serious concerns that Texas has executed this innocent person. Rather than let this important hearing go forward and the report be heard, the Governor fires the independent Chairman and two other members of this Commission. It’s like Nixon firing Archibald Cox to avoid turning over the Watergate tapes.”

Commission chairman Sam Bassett was replaced with Williamson County District Attorney John Bradley. Perry also announced that he was removing Tarrant County Assistant District Attorney Alan Levy and forensic scientist Aiece Watts. Forensic pathologist Jean Farley was appointed to join the board, but a defense attorney has not been named to fill the seat vacated by Bassett.

Innocence Project Policy Director Stephen Saloom added:

“We hope the Governor’s dismissals and his new Chairman’s meeting cancellation do not signal a change in course from the honest reckoning with the allegations of forensic negligence or misconduct in this case that the Innocence Project had filed with the Commission,” Saloom said.

In 2007, the TFSC accepted the Innocence Project’s request to launch an investigation into the case of Willingham, who was executed in 2004 for allegedly setting a fire to his home that killed his three small children. The commission contracted with Dr. Craig Beyler, a widely respected arson expert, to conduct an independent review of the case. Beyler presented his report earlier this month, and was expected to appear before the commission on Friday. Beyler’s report, like a 2006 report from five arson experts convened by the Innocence Project, finds that the arson evidence against Willingham was wrong. And an exhaustive report in the New Yorker earlier this month deconstructed every facet of the case against Willingham and showed that he was innocent.

Read more about the Willingham case and download Beyler’s report and an exhaustive investigation of the case from the New Yorker.

News Coverage of Today’s Announcement by Perry:

Houston Chronicle: Is Perry Pulling a Nixon?

Dallas Morning News: Perry Removes Panel Appointees Before Hearing on Flawed Arson Inquiry

CNN: Texas Governor Shakes Up Panel Probing 2004 Execution

Associated Press: Three Texas Commissioners Looking into Arson Dismissed

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