THE PLANK OCTOBER 14, 2009
Not murder in the literal sense, of course, though in this case the metaphor is less distant than one would prefer. As noted earlier this month, Texas Governor Perry abruptly fired the chairman and two members of the Texas Forensic Science Commission investigating the execution of Cameron Todd Willingham--a man who was almost certainly innocent--just days before the commission was scheduled to hear expert testimony that the lethal arson for which Willingham was put to death under Perry's watch was no arson at all.
Now the fired chairman, Samuel Bassett, tells the Chicago Tribune that, prior to his firing, he felt "pressure" from the governor's office regarding the Willingham case:
According to Bassett, the governor's attorneys questioned the cost of the inquiry and asked why a fire scientist from Texas could not be hired to examine the case instead of the expert from Maryland that the panel ultimately settled on. Following the meeting, a staffer from the general counsel's office began to attend the commission's meetings, Bassett said...
[Then-General Counsel] Cabrales told him in February that the Willingham investigation was not the kind of work the legislature intended for the commission."I politely said that I'm not sure I agree with that but that I'm certainly willing to go back and look at the statute," Bassett said. A week later, he sent Cabrales and [Deputy General Counsel] Wiley a letter with a copy of the law creating the commission.
Wiley also questioned the cost of the investigation and, according to Bassett, called the pay to [fire expert] Beyler a waste of state money. Bassett said he defended Beyler as an independent expert. He said he also responded that the commission had unanimously voted to hire Beyler....
Bassett said he was called back to the general counsel's office March 19. At that meeting, Wiley was more cordial, Bassett said, but she also talked about legislators' concerns about the commission's role and hinted the commission's funding might be in jeopardy. Wiley told Bassett the Willingham investigation should be a lower priority, he said.
I've seen no suggestion that anything Perry might have done violates the law, which means that if he is to be punished for impeding an investigation into whether Texas executed an innocent man the punishment will have to be political in nature. The question is whether anyone in the state of Texas--his opponents in the gubernatorial race, other state officials, the voters themselves--will be equal to the task.