October 12, 2009
Ousted head of inquiry into blaze that led to execution says Perry aides pressured him
By Steve Mills
Chicago Tribune reporter
Just months before the controversial removal of three members of a state commission investigating the forensics that led to a Texas man's 2004 execution, top aides to Gov. Rick Perry tried to pressure the chairman of the panel over the direction of the inquiry, the chairman has told the Tribune.
Samuel Bassett, whom Perry replaced on the Texas Forensic Science Commission two weeks ago, said he twice was called to meetings with Perry's top attorneys. At one of those meetings, Bassett said he was told they were unhappy with the course of the commission's investigation.
"I was surprised that they were involving themselves in the commission's decision-making," Bassett said. "I did feel some pressure from them, yes. There's no question about that."
A Tribune investigation in 2004 raised the possibility that Perry, who was governor when Cameron Todd Willingham was executed, approved the lethal injection of an innocent man. That story revealed 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 in the case. Perry has said he examined the information. But he did not delay the execution.
In the years since the Tribune brought the Willingham case to light, it has slowly begun to draw national attention because of its potential importance in the death penalty debate. Perry has downplayed a series of reviews by fire scientists who sharply criticized the original Willingham investigation, going so far as to ridicule the scientists by describing them 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 fire scientist from Texas could not be hired to examine the case instead of the expert from Maryland that the panel ultimately settled on.
Following the meeting, a staffer from the general counsel's office began to attend the commission's meetings, Bassett said.
And although Bassett said he had hoped his work on the commission would focus solely on forensics, the meetings he described likely will add to questions about Perry's moves.
Bassett told the Tribune the governor's attorneys at the meetings were then-General Counsel David Cabrales and Deputy General Counsel Mary Anne Wiley, one of Perry's top advisers on criminal justice issues. Cabrales, now in private practice, and Wiley referred questions to the governor's press office. A Perry spokeswoman said the governor was not aware of the meetings and called them "regular, routine and expected."
In December, Bassett's nine-member panel voted to hire Craig Beyler of Hughes Associates Inc. to analyze the fire investigation and write a report. That report, made public in late August, contained withering criticism of the fire investigation, and added to 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 the meeting, Perry replaced Bassett and two other commission members, Alan Levy, a prosecutor from Fort Worth, and Aliece Watts, a forensic scientist. Perry named John Bradley, a conservative prosecutor, to replace Bassett as chairman.
Perry called the moves routine but was immediately criticized for actions that seemed aimed at reining in the commission.
Bradley's first order of business was to cancel the public meeting early this month at which Beyler was scheduled to discuss his investigation with the commission.
The inquiry focuses on the fire investigation that led to the conviction and execution of Willingham, who was put to death in February 2004 for setting a 1991 fire that killed his three children in their Corsicana, Texas, home.
The Tribune, which learned of the case after Willingham had been executed, published a story in December 2004 that showed how the original investigation of the fire was deeply flawed, with state and local investigators relying on principles of fire behavior later disproved by advances in fire science.
After that report, the Innocence Project, a New York-based group, and national media outlets began to report on flaws in the case.
Bassett's commission set out to conduct its own investigation.
But, Bassett said, Cabrales told him in February that the Willingham investigation was not the kind of work the legislature intended for the commission.
"I politely said that I'm not sure I agree with that but that I'm certainly willing to go back and look at the statute," Bassett said. A week later, he sent Cabrales and Wiley a letter with a copy of the law creating the commission.
Wiley also questioned the cost of the investigation and, according to Bassett, called the pay to Beyler a waste of state money. Bassett said he defended Beyler as an independent expert. He said he also responded that the commission had unanimously voted to hire Beyler.
Another concern Bassett said he heard from Wiley was possible influence from the Innocence Project, a group that helps free innocent inmates.
Bassett, an attorney who practices criminal defense and family law in Austin, said he agreed about the potential for the Innocence Project to push its own agenda, but he defended the commission's ability to act independently.
Bassett said he was called back to the general counsel's office March 19. At that meeting, Wiley was more cordial, Bassett said, but she also talked about legislators' concerns about the commission's role and hinted the commission's funding might be in jeopardy.
Wiley told Bassett the Willingham investigation should be a lower priority, he said. Other issues, including those directly dealing with crime labs, could be given more attention.
Beyler's report was made public Aug. 24, and questions about how Perry had handled the case grew more intense. The commission planned to study Beyler's report and write a report to be delivered after the new year.
Bassett had told reporters the commission's report would focus on forensics and not decide Willingham's guilt or innocence. He said he had not made up his mind about the case; it was possible, he said, that both sides in the death penalty debate could be dissatisfied with the commission's final report.
He said he is reluctant to tie political motives to what happened. But he said it is a "reasonable conclusion" that the meetings, the commission's push on Willingham and the dismissal of the three commission members 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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