Bassett: Politics Stymied Willingham Investigation • by Aziza Musa April 18, 2011
The former chairman of a state forensic board applauded the current commissioners' report on the arson investigation used to convict Cameron Todd Willingham, a review that recommended wide-ranging improvements in fire science. But he said he's deeply concerned that politics interfered in their ability to take a stronger stance on the case.
"The level of controversy that an investigation might cause should not be a criteria for advancing the cause of forensic science in Texas," Austin attorney Sam Bassett wrote in an email to The Texas Tribune.
Willingham, who was accused of setting fire to his Corsicana home in a 1991 blaze that killed his three daughters, was executed in 2004 despite maintaining his innocence. Following his execution, fire experts questioned the science used to convict him. In an email sent Monday, Bassett said the commission report clearly indicates that the science used to convict Willingham was faulty. And he applauded commissioners' efforts to require forensic science institutions, such as the state fire marshal's office, to inform and correct in cases where science changes.
"If they had done so, perhaps Mr. Willingham would have had a new trial at which the jury would have had the benefit of an investigation based upon good science," he wrote. "Instead, those who could have done something to shed scientific light on the case did nothing and Mr. Willingham was executed."
In 2006, the Forensic Science Commission received a request from the Innocence Project, a New-York based clinic that seeks to exonerate wrongfully convicted people, to review the Willingham case for possible professional negligence and misconduct. The commission took up the case 3 years later, when Bassett was chair.
The commission hired arson expert Craig Beyler to write a report of Willingham's case, but days before Beyler was to testify on his findings, Gov. Rick Perry replaced his appointees to the commission and named Williamson County District Attorney John Bradley the new chairman.
In January 2010, the new commission heard testimony from arson experts, including Beyler and officials from the state fire marshal's office. And Bradley called for Attorney General Greg Abbott's opinion on whether the commission had jurisdiction to determine professional negligence, despite other commissioners' urging to keep moving the case forward. The board finalized its report on the case late last week, a document that lists recommendations for fire investigators, lawyers and judges — but explicitly states that the commission will not rule on negligence while Abbott's decision is pending. Abbott has up to 180 days to make his ruling.
In his email, Bassett argued that the commission already has jurisdiction, and didn't need a politicized AG opinion to prove it. "Now, it seems the question is in the hands of an elected official, the attorney general, and I remain concerned that politics rather than science, will influence the decision," he wrote.
He also said the time it's taken to get to this point is the result of offensive political maneuvering.
"That is not acceptable to most Texans, myself included," he wrote. "I hope that future investigations of this importance are not delayed in this fashion.
Here's the full text of Bassett's email:
I was heartened to see the hard work of the Commissioners in pushing through a report on the Willis/Willingham case this week. The report is forward looking, as it should be. It does appear to establish that the science which was largely the basis of Todd Willingham’s conviction was flawed. We will never know if Willingham was innocent or guilty. However, one thing is certain – much of the “expert” testimony used to convict him was not based upon sound scientific principles. It is clear that the evolution of fire science showed this to be true well before the date of Willingham’s execution. The Commission is correct to recommend that forensic entities (such as the State Fire Marshal’s Office) must take measures to inform and correct in cases where science evolves and/or changes. It is clear that the State Fire Marshal’s Office should have done more to keep pace with science and inform fire investigators throughout Texas once NFPA 921 was published. If they had done so, perhaps Mr. Willingham would have had a new trial at which the jury would have had the benefit of an investigation based upon good science. Instead, those who could have done something to shed scientific light on the case did nothing and Mr. Willingham was executed.
I am hopeful that the Commission will proceed to the final inquiry in the case – whether or not fire investigators and/or law enforcement committed professional negligence or misconduct during the course of the case. Only recently, the Commission has chosen to seek the opinion of the Attorney General of the State of Texas on the issue of the jurisdiction of the Commission. It is interesting to me that the jurisdiction question is being raised at this late juncture, at a time when the Commission appears to be seriously considering a finding of professional negligence or misconduct. The jurisdictional question was considered when I was Presiding Officer and the Commission. At that time, Commissioner Alan Levy (a prosecutor) and myself both believed the Commission was within its jurisdiction to investigate the Willingham case. Now, it seems the question is in the hands of an elected official (The Attorney General) and I remain concerned that politics, rather than science, will influence the decision.
The Commission’s journey to this point was not easy. If you recall, the complaint was originally filed in 2006. At that time the Commission had no funding. In 2008, after the Commission was funded, the Commission voted unanimously to proceed with the investigation. It has taken almost three (3) years to reach this point. To me, that is not acceptable to most Texans, myself included. I hope that future investigations of this importance are not delayed in this fashion. The level of controversy that an investigation might cause should not be a criteria for advancing the cause of forensic science in Texas. My hope is that the Commission will grow to be more science oriented as a result of the Willingham investigation. The persistence of scientists on the commission in 2010 and 2011 is what brought us to the point where we are today. I thank them for their hard work.
Willingham arson report comes before panel this week By Chuck Lindell | Wednesday, April 13, 2011 During a two-day meeting to begin Thursday afternoon, the Texas Forensic Science Commission will... more
Texas Forensic Science Commission Approves Arson Recommendations Determination of negligence in Willingham arson case still pending On Friday April 14, the Texas Forensic Science Commission made real ... more
Film questions Texas death penalty arson case December 7, 2011 -- Updated 1427 GMT (2227 HKT) (CNN) -- Throughout "Incendiary," a new award-winning documentary, filmmakers pose a tough question with... more
INCENDIARY the willingham case http://www.incendiarymovie.com/INCENDIARY/INCENDIARY.html Please join the Houston Peace and Justice Center (www.hpjc.org) for a special screening of: INCENDIARY 8pm,... more
Forensics report on Willingham case advances good science Posted Monday, Apr. 18, 20110 Members of the Texas Forensic Science Commission last week sidestepped the most incendiary issue facing them,... more
Fire Officials Urged to Revisit Old Cases Forensic Science Commission nears close of Willingham investigation BY JORDAN SMITH, FRI., APRIL 22, 2011 Members of the Texas Forensic Science Commission... more
Willingham case spurs panel's call for reform Commissioners looked into investigations that critics say were flawed and sent a Corsicana dad to his execution By ALLAN TURNER HOUSTON CHRONICLE April... more
Texas forensic panel plans to release Willingham report this week Posted Wednesday, Apr. 13, 20110 BY DAVE MONTGOMERY email@example.com AUSTIN -- The Texas Forensic Science Commission is... more
Willingham report released By Chuck Lindell | Thursday, April 14, 2011, 12:09 PM A draft report issued today by the Texas Forensic Science Commission on the evidence used to convict and execute... more
Michael McLaughlin firstname.lastname@example.org Cameron Todd Willingham Exoneration Was Written But Never Filed By Texas Judge Posted: 05/19/2012 8:01 am Updated: 05/19/2012 2:29 pm A Texas... more
Family requests pardon review for executed man CHRIS TOMLINSON, Associated Press Wednesday, October 24, 2012 | Updated: Wednesday, October 24, 2012 12:40pm AUSTIN, Texas (AP) — The family of a man... more
Effort continues to examine Texas arson convictions Posted Saturday, Aug. 04, 2012 BY YAMIL BERARD email@example.com Texas criminal justice watchdogs are examining records from hundreds of... more
Myths and Facts about the Willingham Case Cameron Todd Willingham’s case raises strong opinions on many different levels, but some who defend his conviction and execution are distorting aspects of... more
Willingham case puts spotlight on forensic analysis Posted Saturday, Apr. 30, 20110 BY YAMIL BERARD firstname.lastname@example.org One Oklahoma forensic chemist was so prolific in implicating criminal... more
Bradley out as head of Texas forensics panel By THE ASSOCIATED PRESS May 25, 2011, 4:47PM TDCJ Cameron Todd Willingham was executed in 2004 for setting a fire that killed his three daughters. AUSTIN... more
Perry Chooses New Forensic Science Board Chairman • by Brandi Grissom July 1, 2011 Gov. Rick Perry today announced he has appointed Dr. Nizam Peerwani, a well-known Fort Worth medical examiner, to... more