Texas Governor Fires Commissioners Probing Arson

A report that concluded that a faulty investigation led to the execution of a Texas man won't be reviewed by a state board as planned after Gov. Rick Perry abruptly removed three people from the panel. The report criticized the arson finding that led to Cameron Todd Willingham's execution for the deaths of his three daughters in a 1991 blaze. Dave Mann, a reporter with the Texas Observer, discusses the case.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

We recently heard the story here of Cameron Todd Willingham's conviction and execution for the arson deaths of his three young children.

Journalist David Grann of The New Yorker magazine described how the forensic evidence in that Texas murder case was reviewed by outside experts, and how the Texas Forensic Science Commission was likely to conclude that an innocent man had been wrongly convicted and put to death.

Well, here is the latest twist to this story. Texas Governor Rick Perry, who has expressed confidence in the verdict and the sentence, removed three of the eight commissioners yesterday, forcing the cancellation of a key hearing.

David Mann of the Texas Observer has been following all this and he joins us from Austin. And David Mann, what was the commission supposed to do tomorrow that it won't be doing?

Mr. DAVID MANN (Texas Observer): They were supposed to meet in Irving, Texas, where they were going to continue their investigation into the Willingham case. And they were scheduled to hear from Craig Byler who's based in Baltimore, is a national arson expert and recently produced a report on the Willingham case for the commission in which he concluded that the fire was likely accidental, which concurs with the conclusions of many of the other national experts who looked at this case.

But after Rick Perry's action yesterday, that meeting has cancelled and won't be happening.

SIEGEL: It'll be cancelled because there are now new commissioners, including a new chairman, who aren't up to speed. How routine or extraordinary was the replacement of the commissioners?

Mr. MANN: It's certainly not routine. Now, the three commissioners who were replaced, all their terms had expired in September. And the governor, as the governor's office has pointed out, has the authority to replace these commissioners and choose whoever he wants. But these commissioners had been serving for several years, particularly the chairman of the commission. He had done a lot of the work to get this commission off the ground. It had only been around since 2005, and he wanted to keep serving. So, certainly the timing has raised a lot of questions in people's minds about the governor's motivation for this.

SIEGEL: Now, according to the Dallas Morning News, the newly appointed chairman, Williamson County D.A. John Bradley, is and I quote, "considered one of the most conservative, hard-line prosecutors in Texas." First, does that square with what you know? And is that a change from his predecessor?

Mr. MANN: That's an accurate description. There are certainly many criminal justice reform advocates in Texas who would use probably slightly harsher language, in relation to John Bradley. He's a very bright guy, but he has a reputation in Texas for being a hard-line prosecutor.

And his predecessor, as chairman of the commission, Sam Bassett, was a defense attorney. And Sam Bassett really wanted to push the commission to investigate allegations of poor forensic work in Texas, and especially in arson cases. And the Willingham case is very high profile. And Bradley has not committed to continuing the Willingham investigation. He's cancelled the hearing and hasn't said whether he will reschedule the hearing and whether he plans to produce a final report.

SIEGEL: Yes, Willingham's case is egregious in that he was not only convicted, but he was executed. But you've written a series of stories about arson cases in Texas this year for The Observer, and there does seem to be a systemic problem here with arson cases.

Mr. MANN: There's a huge problem here. Arson is one of the few crimes where you can be convicted on the testimony of a single forensic expert. If an expert gets up on the stand and says, I know this fire was arson because of X, Y, Z, chances are you're going to be convicted. Anybody with an insurance policy has a built-in motive. And the problem comes in when that forensic evidence may not be correct.

And much of the old assumptions about what constituted arson has turned out to be incorrect. There are at this moment nearly 800 people serving arson sentences in Texas prisons. And many of those people - several hundred were convicted 10, 15, 20 years ago, and I found at least three with serious problems where innocent people may have been convicted.

Now, they are still serving in prison. They weren't executed as Cameron Todd Willingham was, but we are looking at a systemic problem. And that's one of the reasons that the work of the Forensic Science Commission is so important. There's no going back on the Willingham case now, unfortunately, but if you can learn lessons about what happened and apply it going forward, that's one of the ideas behind the Forensic Science Commission. And now it's in doubt about whether that will happen.

SIEGEL: David Mann of The Texas Observer, thank you very much for talking with us.

Mr. MANN: My pleasure, Robert.

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