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Fired commissioner in Texas execution inquiry says governor's aides pressured him

The panel is looking into disputed arson forensics that convicted Cameron Todd Willingham, who was put to death in 2004.

October 12, 2009|Steve Mills

CHICAGO — Texas Gov. Rick Perry's aides put pressure on the chairman of a state commission that was investigating the forensics that led to a man's 2004 execution, the chairman told the Chicago Tribune.

Perry removed the chairman, Samuel Bassett, and two other members of the Texas Forensic Science Commission two weeks ago.

Bassett told the Chicago Tribune that months earlier, he was twice called to meetings with the Republican governor's top attorneys. At one meeting, he said, they expressed unhappiness with the course of the commission's investigation.

"I was surprised that they were involving themselves in the commission's decision-making," said Bassett, an Austin attorney. "I did feel some pressure from them, yes."

A 2004 Tribune investigation raised the possibility that Perry, who was governor when Cameron Todd Willingham was executed, approved the lethal injection of an innocent man. That article found 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. Perry has said he examined the information. But he did not delay the execution.

Perry has downplayed a series of reviews by fire scientists who sharply criticized the original investigation, describing the scientists as "latter-day supposed experts."

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 Texas fire scientist could not be hired instead of the Maryland expert whom the panel settled on.

In December, Bassett's nine-member panel voted to hire Craig Beyler of Hughes Associates to analyze the fire investigation and write a report. That report, made public in late August, contained withering criticism of the fire investigation, and joined a drumbeat of findings critical of the investigation.

Beyler was scheduled to discuss the case at an Oct. 2 commission meeting in Dallas, but three days before, Perry replaced Bassett and two other commission members.

Perry named John Bradley, a conservative prosecutor, as chairman.

Bradley's first order of business was to cancel the meeting.

The inquiry focuses on the fire investigation in the Willingham case. He was executed in February 2004 for setting a 1991 fire that killed his three children in their home in Corsicana, Texas.

The Tribune, which learned of the case after Willingham had been executed, ran a story in December 2004 showing that the original investigation was deeply flawed, with state and local investigators relying on principles of fire behavior that later were disproved by advances in fire science.

The panel had planned to study Beyler's report and write a report of its own to be delivered after the new year.

Bassett said he is reluctant to link politics to what happened. But he said it is a "reasonable conclusion" that the events are connected. Mostly, though, he said, he is worried the commission will not be allowed to finish its work.

"It's clear to me that the Willingham investigation is a lightning rod for the future of the commission," Bassett said. "I'll never, ever say we shouldn't have taken on that investigation."

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smmills@tribune.com

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