Thursday, 15 October 2009

Gov. Rick Perry’s changes at forensic commission raise eyebrows

Gov. Rick Perry’s hatchet has fallen once again on what was a little-known state commission created to ensure the credibility of forensic science used in criminal investigations.

The governor has now replaced all four of his appointees, including the chairman, to the nine-member Texas Forensic Science Commission. His actions came as the commission was investigating its highest-profile case, involving the possibility that an innocent man was executed in 2004.

Because of the reshuffling of members, an Oct. 2 meeting of the commission, at which it planned to hear from an arson expert, was indefinitely postponed.

The out-of-state expert had prepared a report that said the forensic evidence in the case of Cameron Todd Willingham, accused of murdering his three daughters in a fire, was faulty and that the blaze that killed the children was not a result of arson.

Just two days before the scheduled meeting, the governor began his purge, informing three members that their services were no longer needed. Last week he dismissed his fourth appointee, leaving many to wonder if his sudden moves were politically motivated because he had signed off on the Willingham execution five years ago — and he has a tough primary race coming up in March.

Perry has said that all the dismissals were routine, as each member’s term had expired. Although he had been encouraged by others not to make changes at this juncture, the governor saw the need to move swiftly in replacing members.

The former chairman of the commission, Austin attorney Samuel Bassett, told the Chicago Tribune that top members of the governor’s legal staff had injected themselves into the commission’s work and had applied pressure regarding the Willingham investigation, which the governor’s office did not regard as a priority. He said the investigation’s cost and the fact that the expert was not from Texas were also issues.

Bassett said there was the implication that the commission’s funding was in jeopardy, and the general counsel’s office began sending a representative to all the commission meetings.

There was apparently some concern on the part of the governor’s aides that the Forensic Science Commission had overstepped its bounds in taking on the Willingham investigation. In a case where a man is put to death based largely on forensic evidence, one would think this is exactly the kind of issue that would be part of the commission’s purview.

The Senate Criminal Justice Committee, which includes three members who pushed for legislation to create the commission, has rightly set a hearing next month to explore the commission’s plans and processes.

The newly appointed commission chairman has been invited to appear, and the senators should make it irrefutably clear that the Willingham case must not be shelved or unduly delayed.

Only the governor knows whether his motives were political, but these recent episodes have produced a pungent smell of politicization.

And the odor is nauseating.


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