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Texas Governor Railroads Death Penalty Case Probe

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By Caleb Groos on October 01, 2009 1:43 PM

This week, Texas Governor Rick Perry abruptly replaced three members of a commission investigating the forensics behind the conviction of now executed Cameron Todd Willingham. The move came days before the commission was scheduled to hear an expert's report harshly discrediting the arson investigation in Willingham's case.

Cameron Todd Willingham was convicted in 1992 for murdering his three small daughters by setting the family's house on fire. His story was recently featured on Nightline.

The Dallas Morning News reports that Governor Perry's reshuffling of the Texas Forensic Science Commission comes days before its was to hear damning testimony about the Willingham arson investigation.

While prosecutors and critics continue to argue over Willingham's guilt or innocence, Governor Perry's move has turned attention to the kind of forensics used in death penalty convictions, the state's willingness to examine possible mistakes, and to whether his upcoming election has anything to do with the move.

The Texas Forensic Science Commission does not rule or issue finding on someone's guilt or innocence. In the Willingham case, it is investigating whether forensic negligence took place.

The Willingham case is the Commission's first review case. Before Perry's reshuffling of Commission members, it was supposed to hear from Craig Beyler, a pre-eminent fire scientist whom the Commission hired to write a report about the Willingham arson investigation. That's been shelved.

Beyler did not have good things to say. His report, released in August, concluded that not only was the investigation flawed, but that no reasonable investigator could have concluded that the fire was intentionally set.

Beyler found none of the investigators involved to have used or understood fire science or the protocols of arson investigation.

About one of the Willingham fire investigators, Beyler found that his conclusions in the Willingham case (and his theories about fire in general) did not to comport with modern fire science, older fire science, or eyewitness testimony about the fire. The same investigator testified before the Willingham jury that "[t]he fire tells a story. I am just the interpreter," and that "the fire does not lie. It tells me the truth."

As the Beyler report phrased it, "[h]is approach toward fire scene investigation is not found in any text of the day."

Concern over the arson investigation is not new. The Morning News reports that shortly before Willingham's execution, Governor Perry received an expert report concluding that the arson evidence used against Willingham was based on discredited junk science.

Prosecutors and Governor Perry argue that Willingham was guilty even if the investigation was "flawed." However, the AP reported that John Jackson, the case's prosecutor, admits that there may not have been enough evidence to sustain a capital conviction without the "proof" of arson.

Before the Commission could hear Beyler's testimony on Friday, Governor Perry replaced three of its members, including its chairman.

John Bradley, Governor Perry's new appointment as Commission chairman, cancelled Friday's hearing. Bradley stated that he is not yet "informed enough" to know whether the Commission will need to hear from Beyler in the future.

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