In case you had any doubts…
Wednesday, September 14th, 2011
. . . why Rick Perry replaced those members of the Texas Forensics Commission, this ought to put them to rest.
In 2008, the Commission held a meeting to determine what cases to investigate, and decided to look into the complaint raised by the Innocence Project about the conviction of Todd Willingham. According to Bassett, who spoke recently to The Politics Blog, the attorney general of Texas was present at the meeting, and gave his approval to the investigation. But when the Commission hired an independent investigator to examine the arson investigation upon which Willingham’s execution was predicated, Bassett says that he was called into the Governor’s office and “read the riot act” by Perry’s lawyers. “I was told that I did not have jurisdiction to investigate the case, which was odd, since the Attorney General was at the meeting where we decided to go ahead with the investigation.”
Bassett reviewed the law that created the Commission, and decided to go ahead with the investigation despite the Governor’s opposition. A year later, the independent investigator completed his investigation and found that not only did the arson investigators in the Willingham case fail to meet current scientific standards, it failed to meet the standards that were in place at the time the investigation began in 1991. Indeed, the independent investigator concluded that there was no scientific basis for Willingham’s conviction, and in September 2009, Bassett moved to a hold a public hearing about the case. Days before the hearing was convened, he says he received a call from Rick Perry’s spokeswoman. His term had expired, and because he “served at the governor’s pleasure,” he was not being reappointed. “I was told the governor had decided to ‘go in a different direction,’” Bassett says.
The “different direction” amounted to this: the appointment of a Republican prosecutor in the place of Bassett, a Democrat; a procedural review in the place of the public hearing, followed by an investigation of whether the Commission had the power to investigate the Willingham case; and a report by the Attorney General that overruled his office’s original stance and concluded that the Commission had the power to recommend forensic standards in the present but not to investigate whether those standards were violated in the past. In other words, the state of Texas concerned itself with legalisms, but avoided facing the legal question of whether it had put to death an innocent man.
My HuffPost colleague Jason Linkins adds a bit more.
From there, Bassett was replaced with Williamson County District Attorney John Bradley — a political ally of Perry’s. And as I’ve run down here, Bradley distinguished himself mainly by going to great lengths to delay and impede the commission’s investigation of the Willingham execution. Perhaps the most significant move Bradley made was restructuring the commission into subcommittees, one of which (the one he appointed himself to chair) would tackle the Willingham case. By shunting the commission’s work into smaller groups, Bradley managed to evade Texas’ Open Meetings Act — which only applied to meetings for which there was a set quorum of the whole. Craig Beyler, the independent investigator mentioned above, backed Bassett’s contention that the commission’s work had been subverted by political pressure, writing to commission coordinator Leigh Tomlin, “Sadly, the political influence which has been exercised with respect to the commission has compromised the integrity of the enterprise.”
As I’ve written before, the problem here isn’t necessarily that Perry presided over the execution of an innocent man. There wasn’t much he could have done to stop it. The death penalty also isn’t really an issue that much affects a U.S. president. Federal executions are pretty rare.
The problem is that since doubts have been raised about the Willingham case, Perry has done everything in his power to prevent anyone from knowing the truth about what happened. His instinct here has been and is to cover all of this up and to silence critics, and all while professing an unyielding faith that when it comes to executions, the state of Texas always gets it right, all the time