AUSTIN – If you want closure on questions of Cameron Todd Willingham's guilt or innocence, get comfortable.
The new chair of the Texas Forensic Science Commission says the board doesn't yet have the rules, staff or resources to be investigating allegations of faulty science in criminal cases -- including the high profile arson-murder case that led to Willingham's execution.
Williamson County District Attorney John Bradley, who Gov. Rick Perry appointed chair two days before a now-canceled hearing on evidence in the Willingham case, says the commission will stick to its mission – analyzing forensic science mishaps – from here on out, as opposed to leaving the door open for a death penalty debate.
Though the commission will still investigate the Willingham evidence, which includes testimony from arson experts critical of the arson investigation methods, Bradley said his first priority is turning the commission into a professional investigating arm. Right now, he said, the body has no formal rules, a measly budget and a single staffer – hardly the resources to make investigative recommendations that carry weight.
"The commission is going to conclude the Willingham case and complete the report as it’s required to do. But it needs to be done in a way we can trust it," said Bradley, who will testify before the Senate Criminal Justice Committee on Tuesday. "…If [Perry] knew what I know, there were very good reasons for making changes" on the commission.
Critics of the Willingham execution – and of Perry’s decision to replace commission chair Sam Bassett and one other member just days before the anticipated hearing on it – are likely to see Bradley’s recommendations as a stall tactic.
The governor, who staunchly believes Willingham set the 1991 house fire that killed his three daughters, refused to halt the 2004 execution after an arson expert warned the investigation appeared flawed. The hearing that was derailed by Perry’s new appointments featured a prominent arson expert who found no evidence Willingham set the fire, and said arson techniques used to convict him were outdated. Perry has since replaced two more commission members.
One of the lawmakers who voted for the nine-member commission, established in 2005 but not funded until 2007, said this idea of it being a ruleless, unguided entity are false.
"The commission members can determine how to do their business, within reason, but the scope and purview of the commission is clearly set out in legislation we passed more than four years ago," said State Sen. Rodney Ellis, D-Houston, who chairs the board of directors of the New York-based Innocence Project, which brought the Willingham complaint to the commission. "Mr. Bradley’s priority should be carrying out the commission’s mandate, not finding ways to delay investigations that can help ensure quality forensic analysis in cases across the state."
The Willingham case is one of three the commission has considered, and is the farthest along.
Bradley said the commission was designed with a specific investigative purpose, but that the previous board "has not created that environment." Because the commission wasn’t given the closed meetings protections other investigative bodies have, he said, it has turned into a media circus – and an inadvertent forum on the death penalty.
Bassett, the former chair, agrees with Bradley that the premature release of investigative reports under the state's open records laws can create distractions for the board. But he believes strongly that the commission shouldn't meet in private.
"This isn't a court. It's not a police agency," Bassett said. "This is a commission having to do with policy and forensic science. The more the public knows in that context the better."
Bradley has asked officials from the Texas Supreme Court, the Attorney General’s Office and the Texas Department of Public Safety to offer their guidance and support for the commission -- in defining rules, protocol and a confidentiality arrangement. He’s also asking the Legislature for additional funding.
"I can’t change perceptions," Bradley said. "I can only ask people to judge by the end product whether we’ve acted with integrity."