In spite of a clemency plea in which a nationally recognized arson expert concluded that the conviction of Cameron Todd Willingham was based in part on flawed forensics, Texas Gov. Rick Perry turned down Willingham's plea for clemency and allowed the executed to go forward in 2004.
Perry insisted again on Wednesday that the execution of Cameron Todd Willingham was appropriate and that Texas did not, contrary to growing opinion, execute an innocent man. Critics allege that Perry used his political power to stymie an investigation into the botched execution. Perry stifled a panel reviewing Willingham's execution by abruptly removing three people from the group 48 hours before the review, forcing its cancellation. A fire expert who challenged the arson investigation and one of the ousted commission members are speaking out.
"Sadly, the political influence which has been exercised with respect to the commission has compromised the integrity of the enterprise," Baltimore fire expert Craig Beyler said in an e-mail to commission coordinator Leigh Tomlin and ousted Chairman Sam Bassett.
"He had a personal role in the Willingham case," Beyler wrote.
"Under these circumstances, he should have recused himself from making appointments. His failure to recuse himself is both unethical and injurious to the cause of justice."
Lawyers representing Gov. Rick Perry on two occasions grilled Austin lawyer Sam Bassett on the activities of his Texas Forensic Science Commission, telling him its probe into a controversial Corsicana arson case was inappropriate and opining that the hiring of a nationally known fire expert was a “waste of state money,” the ousted commission chairman said Tuesday.
Bassett, who served two two-year terms as commission chairman before Perry replaced him on Sept. 30, said he was so concerned about what he considered “pressure” from the lawyers that he conferred with an aide to state Sen. John Whitmire, D-Houston, who reassured him “the commission was doing what it's supposed to do.”
Whitmire, who authored legislation creating the commission, has vowed to press Bassett's replacement, Williamson County District Attorney John Bradley, to continue the probe into the 1991 fire that killed three children and sent their father, Cameron Todd Willingham, to death row.
Bradley, appointed commission chairman two days before the panel was to hear testimony from Baltimore fire expert Craig Beyler, canceled the group's scheduled Oct. 2 meeting in Dallas. Beyler had been scathingly critical of initial investigations of the Corsicana fire.
Perry spokeswoman Allison Castle confirmed the lawyers met with Bassett, but only for routine, informational purposes.
“They did not ask him to discontinue this review,” she said.
Tuesday, Bassett said he was called to meet with then-General Counsel David Cabrales and Deputy General Counsel Mary Anne Wiley on Feb. 3. Bassett described the session as progressively confrontational.
As Bassett outlined the commission's investigations of the Willingham case and that of Brandon Lee Moon, an El Paso man wrongly convicted of sexual assault, Cabrales told the chairman “he didn't think those kinds of investigations were the kind contemplated by the statute,” Bassett said.
“I think he said something along the lines that we should be more forward-looking, more current rather than examining older cases,” Basset said.
Later in the discussion, Bassett said, he was told the Moon investigation was appropriate, but the Willingham case was not. Bassett later reviewed the statute, and, feeling vindicated, sent a copy to the governor's lawyers along with a copy of the complaint that prompted the Willingham investigation.
At one point, the lawyers asked Bassett how the panel chose Beyler to review the Willingham case. Bassett said he explained state regulations, requiring the soliciting of bids, were followed. When Wiley asked how much Beyler had been paid, Bassett said he responded, “$30,000, maybe a little more.”
Wiley then remarked, “That sounds like a waste of state money,” according to Bassett.
Bassett said he was a novice in the role of commission chairman and was uncertain how to interpret the lawyers' remarks.
“I was surprised at the level of involvement that they wanted to have in commission decision-making,” he said.
After the February meeting, a representative of the governor's office for the first time attended commission meetings. Bassett was summoned to a second meeting with Wiley on March 19. That session seemed less confrontational, he said, although Wiley mentioned there was concern the Legislature might discontinue the commission's funding.
“She wanted the commission's focus to be more on liaisons with crime labs, oversight of existing facilities and so forth,” he said.
Perry stood his ground. "Willingham was a monster. He was a guy who murdered his three children, who tried to beat his wife into an abortion so that he wouldn't have those kids. Person after person has stood up and testified to facts of this case that quite frankly you all aren't covering," the governor told the Associated Press on Wednesday.
The Daily Beast takes a look at how Perry's handling of the Willigham affair could be impacting the Governor's chances for reelection -- money quote from Bob Stein of Rice University: "I don't think it's extreme to say it's a fight for the hearts and minds of the Republican Party."