On the day Gov. Rick Perry removed three forensic science commissioners, citing their expired terms, at least 100 appointees whose time was also up remained in their jobs.
The governor has said he followed the "the normal protocol of the state" in removing the three commissioners just 48 hours before they planned to review a report raising questions about an execution. But critics say Perry removed them to cover up the possibility that the state executed a man convicted on faulty evidence.
"These numbers are disturbing because, contrary to what Gov. Perry said, it was not a regular practice to remove these commissioners so quickly and on the verge of a very important hearing," said Barry Scheck, co-director of The Innocence Project, a group that helps the falsely accused. "It's more evidence that Gov. Perry's actions were not to get to the scientific truth of the matter but were self serving and calculated for political advantage."
The list of gubernatorial appointees who were serving after their terms were expired on September 30 also contains nine chairmen of state boards and commissions, according to data obtained by The Texas Tribune under the state's open-records law.
Chris Cutrone, a Perry spokesman, reviewed the list Monday afternoon and said some people with expired terms had been replaced or reappointed since September 30. The office did not have time to research each appointee's status, however.
"The majority of expired appointments are replaced when their terms are up, and these members were replaced," he said of the forensic science commissioners.
The appointees with expired terms represent just a fraction of the roughly 2,400 people serving now. The 103 people serving after their terms were up had overstayed their terms, on average, more than 100 days when the other commissioners were ousted. Several had overstayed their terms more than a year, the records show.
The Forensic Science Commission had scheduled a meeting to examine a report in the case of Cameron Todd Willingham, a Corsicana man convicted of capital murder in the 1991 fire deaths of his three daughters. The state executed him in 2004, after numerous appeals, but some experts now question the investigative conclusions made by arson investigators at the time of the trial.
As the day of the commission's meeting approached, however, Perry announced the removal of chairman Sam Bassett, an Austin attorney, and two other panel members, including a Tarrant County prosecutor whose work has sent killers to Death Row.
Bassett said Monday that Perry aides questioned the scope and cost of the commission's work. He suspected he might be replaced when he learned that Perry aides were compiling a list of potential new commissioners.
"I'm not surprised that the commission was a priority for Gov. Perry because I know his office was concerned about the Willingham investigation," he said.
He said he remains proud of the work he and his colleagues performed on the commission.
"I'm sad that it has been delayed, and I hope that it hasn't been stopped," he said.
The new chairman, Williamson County District Attorney John Bradley, delayed the meeting, and it's unclear when or if it might be rescheduled. Sen. John Whitmire, D-Houston, chairman of the criminal justice committee has scheduled a meeting on the issue for November 10.
"There wasn't going to be enough time for me to learn about the case before the hearing," Bradley said after his appointment.
Craig Beyler, an arson expert hired by the commission, concluded that arson investigators in the Willingham case didn't use scientifically supported techniques and displayed "poor understandings of fire science."
Perry refers to people who question the evidence as "supposed experts," and strongly supported the execution and Willingham's conviction, calling him a "monster."
The forensic commission investigates complaints that allege professional negligence or misconduct in the use of scientific evidence from criminal cases. It doesn't have authority to make legal conclusions about Willingham's guilt or innocence, but it was expected to release its own report about the fire investigation.
"It is not unusual for gubernatorial appointments to lag, but this new information suggests a unique urgency in replacing members of the Forensic Science Commission on the eve of a critical meeting to review an independent, renowned expert's report on the faulty arson science used to convict Cameron Todd Willingham," said Sen. Rodney Ellis, D-Houston. "This new information raises new questions about why Governor Perry replaced several members of the Forensic Science Commission when he did. Those questions need to be answered."
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