Saturday Night Massacre, Business as Usual, or Both?

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(c) Scott Langley

(c) Scott Langley

An important hearing was supposed to take place in Texas today, but on Wednesday, September 30, Texas Governor Rick Perry abruptly replaced three members of the Texas Forensic Science Commission that is currently reviewing the fire investigation that led to the 2004 execution of Cameron Todd Willingham.  The Governor took this action two days before the Commission was scheduled to hear live testimony from Craig Beyler, a nationally respected fire expert whose recent report criticized the original investigation of the fire that killed Willingham’s three children as having “nothing to do with science-based fire investigation.”

That hearing, scheduled for today, has now been postponed, and the chair of the Commission, a defense lawyer from Austin, Sam Bassett, has been replaced by politically-connected, tough-on-crime prosecutor John Bradley.  More than a few eyebrows have been raised by Governor Perry’s sudden move.  Barry Scheck of the Innocence Project,  which also conducted a review of Willingham’s case and determined that he was innocent of the crime for which he was executed, called Perry’s actions a “Saturday Night Massacre,” drawing an analogy with President Nixon’s famous firing of the special prosecutor who was investigating the Watergate scandal. 

For his part, Governor Perry said that his actions were simply “business as usual” … the terms of the three Commission members he removed had expired, so they were replaced.  Of course, this occurred two days before the Commission’s hearing, and there is no reason Governor Perry could not have simply reappointed those Commission members so that they could finish their important work. 

Governor Perry (and the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles) signed off on Willingham’s execution back in 2004, despite having in hand a report challenging the fire investigations as “junk science,” and the Governor has publicly challenged Beyler’s credibility, referring to him and others who have looked at the case as “supposed experts.” What Governor Perry’s expertise is in the area of forensic fire science is unclear.

What is clear is that, whatever the Governor’s motives, if his actions lead to another white-washing of a dubious conviction and death sentence (and, in this case, execution), then that will indeed be “business as usual” in Texas.

Executed for a crime that never occurred?

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In 2004, Cameron Todd Willingham was executed in Texas for setting a fire that killed his three children.  He maintained his innocence to the end, and those who looked into his case, including the Chicago Tribune, have concluded that he was in fact wrongfully executed.  His was one of the 200+ executions under Rick Perry, a governor who has remained willfully oblivious to the huge flaws in his state’s death penalty.  

Yet recently, to its credit, the Texas Forensic Science Commission reopened the case.  A nationally known fire expert, Craig Beyler, was hired to assess how Texas authorities investigated the fire.  According to the Tribune, Beyler’s report is not kind to the Texas investigators, and he determined that there was no scientific reason to believe that the fire was arson at all.  If indeed that is the case, Cameron Willingham was executed for a crime that never occurred – an exceptional cruelty for a man who had already lost his three children.

Beyler ripped the fire marshal who investigated the case, saying, according to the Tribune, that the fire marshal had “limited understanding” of fire science, “seems to be wholly without any realistic understanding of fires and how fire injuries are created,” and that his findings “are nothing more than a collection of personal beliefs that have nothing to do with science-based fire investigation.”

The Texas Forensic Science Commission will solicit a response from the fire marshal and then publish its final report.  If it reaches the same conclusion that this nationally respected fire expert has, the state of Texas may finally officially acknowledge that it has executed an innocent man.