Peerwani, who has served on the commission since 2009, will replace Williamson County District Attorney John Bradley as leader of the panel that has been embroiled in controversy practically since its inception. Bradley, a law-and-order prosecutor, failed to win Senate confirmation during the legislative session that ended last month.
Perry abruptly ended the service of three commissioners, including then chairman Austin attorney Sam Bassett, in 2009 and appointed the firebrand Bradley to lead the commission as it was preparing to hear testimony from experts who questioned arson evidence used to convict Cameron Todd Willingham of setting a 1991 fire that killed his three daughters.
Willingham was executed in 2004, just as fire experts submitted the reports that indicated he did not ignite the fatal blaze. Perry has adamantly rejected claims that Willingham could have been innocent. In 2009, the commission agreed to examine the science used in the case.
When Bradley took charge of the commission in September 2009 — just ahead of Perry's GOP primary election challenge from U.S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison — the Willingham investigation slowed significantly. And he earned the ire of legislators when he did not attend oversight hearings and, in some instances, did not display the deference they expected.
State Sen. Rodney Ellis, D-Houston — who is also chairman of the New York-based Innocence Project that is fighting to clear Willingham — said during the legislative session that Bradley seemed to be trying to stymie the Willingham investigation. "The record is clear: since Mr. Bradley has taken the reins, rather than move the commission forward to look into allegations, find the truth, and repair problems in our broken justice system, the commission has invested most of its time and energy finding ways to avoid looking into problems and looking for loopholes to block the commission from doing what it was created to do," Ellis said at the time.
Bradley reportedly called Willingham a "guilty monster," and he defended his comment as senators grilled him during a February confirmation hearing. In that heated exchange, Bradley accused Ellis of being biased because of his work on the Innocence Project. Bradley defended his work on the commission, arguing that he aimed to clarify the body's processes and its jurisdiction.
Peerwani, who was appointed to the commission at the same time as Bradley, is chief medical examiner for Tarrant, Denton, Johnson and Parker counties. His term will expire "at the pleasure of the governor."