Saturday, 3 October 2009

Perry's forensic panel move smacks of politics

Austin lawyer Sam Bassett got the call late Tuesday from Doris Scott, Gov. Rick Perry's appointments manager.

“She said ‘Thanks for your service, he's making new appointments to the commission and taking it in a new direction,'” Bassett recalled.

The panel Bassett had chaired, the Texas Forensic Science Commission, had a meeting scheduled today to review a nationally renowned fire science expert's report about arson evidence in a Corsicana murder case.

The case ended in the conviction and execution, on Feb. 17, 2004, of Cameron Todd Willingham, by lethal injection, for the murder of his children, 1-year-old twins Karmon and Kameron, and Amber, who was 2. All three died in a fire at their home in December 1991.

The report by Baltimore fire science expert Craig Beyler, released in August, found that expert testimony used to convince a jury that Willingham had murdered his children by burning their house down was rooted in bad science. On Tuesday, three days before it was to be discussed, Perry removed Bassett and two other members of the commission, an advisory panel that reviews scientific evidence used in court.

Perry, now engaged in a GOP primary battle with Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison in his bid for re-election, had denied Willingham's bid for a stay of execution. Negative fallout from that decision wouldn't have been good for his campaign.

The governor said through a spokeswoman that there was other compelling evidence in the case, including inconsistencies in Willingham's statements to authorities. He remains convinced that Willingham killed his children.

Bassett hadn't said anything publicly about Beyler's report but had read the expert trial testimony.

“Given what Dr. Beyler wrote, and given what my intuition told me, I thought the testimony was — flawed might be a good word,” Bassett said. “I thought the testimony was not substantiated by the science at the time and not by what we know now.”

Keith Hampton, vice president of the Texas Criminal Defense Lawyers Association, went further. He said the purpose of the commission — to establish reliable scientific standards for expert testimony — had been undermined to avoid embarrassment.

“I think the whole thing is actually very tragic because we at long last have a way of injecting real science into our courtrooms,” he said, “and that's being stymied for short-term political concerns.”

Perry said the commissioners' terms expired Sept. 1 and that the changes were routine. The panel's mission, said spokeswoman Katherine Cesinger, “remains the same.”

Maybe by March, Republican voters won't care about this. That seems to be Perry's bet. But they also might realize that this isn't about whether the death penalty is right or wrong. It's about whether it's worth the trouble to get these cases right.

In that respect, my sense is that most Texans pride themselves on being stand-up, straight-shooting people, tough on crime but fair-minded and deliberate in dispensing justice.

Gov. Perry, it seems, decided to go in a different direction.


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