Agency Needs More Time for Willingham Case

John Bradley, left, is the new chair of the Texas Forensic Science Commission. Cameron Todd Willingham, right, was executed for setting a house fire that killed his three daughters.
John Bradley, left, is the new chair of the Texas Forensic Science Commission. Cameron Todd Willingham, right, was executed for setting a house fire that killed his three daughters.

Under a crystal chandelier, in a boardroom with all the gilded flourishes of the Irving Omni Mandalay Hotel’s faux-Mediterranean decor, Forensic Science Commission Chairman John Bradley presided over the state agency’s April quarterly meeting on Friday, which, as advertised, addressed the languishing investigation of Cameron Todd Willingham.

His case occupied less than 15 minutes of the six-and-a-half hour session. That was enough time for Commissioner Sarah Kerrigan to emphasize the commission’s consideration of the long-delayed complaint was “still in its infancy.”

“Other than identifying that it was worthy of an investigation and hiring a consultant to help us, we haven’t made any other progress. We’ve only just begun to assemble the pieces we need,” said Kerrigan, a forensic scientist.

Texas convicted Willingham of the arson fire that killed his three daughters in 1991 and put him to death in 2004. Way back in October, the commission was set to address the serious concerns about the evidence in the case. But two days before, in the wake of a 16,000 word New Yorker piece that brought national scrutiny to the state, and in the midst of a bitter primary election, Gov. Rick Perry replaced three of the commission's members, including then-Chairman Sam Bassett. When Bradley, the Williamson County district attorney, took Bassett’s place, he promptly shelved the Willingham investigation, saying he needed more time to acquaint himself with the commission’s operations.

Since his appointment, the alternately amiable and peevish, typically cowboy-boot-shod Bradley has comported himself as a virtuoso of the bureaucratic dawdle. Under Bradley’s watch, the commission has shifted from meeting on a two-month to a three-month basis, reported to two Senate committees and one interim House committee, and displayed general confusion about its public records policy and legislative oversight procedures. Earlier this month, Bradley riled legislators at an interim hearing of the House Public Safety Committee by failing to appear before them to answer questions about delays in the case. Bradley chalked up his non-appearance to being given “less than a week’s notice," too little for an official of his stature and tight schedule.

 

Bassett, the man whom Bradley abruptly replaced, watched Friday’s meeting on a live stream broadcast. He summed up the situation this way: “It’s tortuously slow how long it’s taking.”

On Friday, in its most substantive move regarding the case, the commission voted to add Fort Worth criminal defense attorney Lance Evans to the previously three-person subcommittee charged with considering it. Citing a concern that the panel should contain another member with a legal background, Evans said, “Obviously everyone is aware of the public perception of what is going on regarding this investigation.”

Deliberations of the subcommittee — which, in addition to Evans, consists of Bradley, Kerrigan and Tarrant County Medical Examiner Nizam Peerwani — will likely not be public, Bradley said. Since it will not form a quorum of the total commission members, the Open Meetings Act does not cover its gatherings is not obligated to make a record of its discussions available to the public.

Willingham’s execution was first officially called into question in August, when Craig Beyler, a fire expert and the consultant to whom Kerrigan referred, issued a damaging report to the commission that discredited the methods the state used to convict Willingham. Beyler’s assessment that one state fire investigator “seems to be wholly without any realistic understanding of fires and how fire injuries are created” is characteristic of his conclusions throughout the report.

In 2007, the Innocence Project submitted a complaint to the commission concerning the arson science the state used to hand death sentences to Willingham, who was executed in 2004, and a second man, Ernest Willis, who was later exonerated. Bassett said at the time that he was “very confident” that the commission would be able to finish a report on the complaint “by the summer of 2010.”

On Friday, the commission spent the morning trudging through the topic of a backlog in forensic testing laboratories, something Innocence Project Policy Director Stephen Saloom, who attended the meeting, complained wasn’t even within its power to address. A visibly upset Saloom said in an interview that the commission was distorting its legislative mandate. He cited its enacting statute, which describes the duties of the commission as investigating — “in a timely manner” — allegations of professional misconduct and developing a “reporting system” to do so.

After 90 minutes of invited testimony from three different witnesses, during which the questioning came almost exclusively from Bradley, Kerrigan spoke to Saloom’s point without him ever raising it publicly: “It’s probably beyond the scope of the commission to think that we can address the backlog of the labs in Texas. We already have very competent people addressing those issues.”

Bassett said he believed that, while the commission might well comment on backlogs if they related to an investigation, he didn’t view that as a general priority. “If they're able to get in three witnesses to talk about lab backlogs, it seems like they'd be able to get a few experts to talk about Willis/Willingham,” he said, adding, “Just the idea that you would spend an hour speaking about lab backlogs and 15 minutes talking about Willis/Willingham, when seems to me it would be the other way around, is baffling.”

After the meeting, Bradley declined to give a timeline for when the commission might conclude its review: “However long it takes, that’s however long it takes.”

 

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