October 15, 2009

From TPM Muckraker--Evidence Builds That Perry's Office Pressured Panel On Willingham Probe:

Things are looking worse and worse for Texas governor Rick Perry, accused of stifling a state panel's probe into that flawed arson investigation that may have led to the execution of an innocent man.

Sam Bassett, the former chair of the Texas Forensic Science Commission, has now told the Houston Chronicle that lawyers for Perry told him the case was inappropriate, and that the hiring of a nationally known fire expert was a "waste of state money."

Over the weekend, Bassett had said he was pressured by the governor's lawyers.

Meanwhile, Perry's GOP rivals are slamming his handling of the issue, and accusing him of a cover-up. As governor, Perry signed off on the execution, despite receiving eleventh-hour documents from lawyers for the convicted man, Cameron Willingham, containing evidence that the original investigation was badly flawed.

Last month, Perry, a Republican, had declined to re-appoint Bassett, as well as several other commissioners whose terms had expired. Bassett has since suggested that the decision was part of an effort to stymie the Willingham inquiry.

Bassett's replacement as chair, John Bradley, immediately canceled a hearing at which the nationally known arson expert, Craig Beyler, was scheduled to testify, and has not said whether it will be rescheduled.

Bassett told the Chronicle he had been summoned to a meeting earlier this year with Perry's then-General Counsel David Cabrales and Deputy General Counsel Mary Anne Wiley. He described it as "progressively confrontational."

CNN's Anderson Cooper picked up on the story as well tonight. Transcript below the fold.

COOPER: Some more breaking news tonight: A key player in the investigation of Cameron Todd Willingham's murder conviction is speaking out for the first time five years after Willingham was executed for the deaths of his three children and, crucially, just days after Texas Governor Rick Perry removed commissioners from the scientific panel investigating whether Willingham was in fact innocent.

Since Willingham's execution, at least six arson experts have examined the evidence and found no credible indications the fire was intentionally set. Just today, Texas Governor Rick Perry, who is up for reelection, spoke out. He has been silent now for a long time. He spoke out about removing four commissioners from the panel and about his confidence in the way the case was handled.


PERRY: We have a system in the state that has followed the procedures. And they found this man guilty every step of the way.


COOPER: Well, that touched off a brand-new firestorm.

And when Randi Kaye spoke with this key scientist who was supposed to testify before the panel, he made news, breaking news tonight.

Randi Kaye is "Keeping Them Honest." She joins us now with what he had to say.

What did you learn?

RANDI KAYE, CNN CORRESPONDENT: It's getting pretty intense, Anderson, really on both sides.

I just got off the phone with Dr. Craig Beyler, a renowned arson investigator, who was supposed to testify, as Anderson, just said, as an expert in this case. He just finished his report in August and said the fire Cameron Todd Willingham was executed for was actually not arson.

Moments ago, he told me he's calling on the governor's appointees to the commission to resign and call for the reinstatement of the removed commissioners. He said it is not a matter of qualifications, but a matter of -- quote -- "personal integrity."

He said, Anderson, that it's really pretty sad that it has come to this.

COOPER: We have offered the governor multiple opportunities to come on this program to talk about this. We have been covering this case for a long time. He's declined those opportunities.

But he did speak out today.

KAYE: He did, in Texas. The governor did come out swinging, actually, railing against Cameron Todd Willingham, who was executed in 2004 under Governor Perry's watch. Listen to what he said.


PERRY: Willingham was a monster. This was a guy who murdered his three children, who tried to beat his wife into an abortion, so that he wouldn't have those kids.


KAYE: Willingham was convicted of arson homicide for setting a fire that killed his three little girls.

Mr. Perry refused to grant Willingham a stay, even though the governor had been presented with some new evidence just before the execution that called into question Willingham's guilt. An expert had determined the fire was not arson.

Now, just before tonight's show, I spoke with Willingham's stepmother about the governor's comments. Eugenia Willingham told me -- quote -- "The governor didn't know Todd. If he did, he wouldn't have such harsh judgment. Todd was a good father who cared for his kids."

And one of Willingham's final wishes, in fact, was to have his ashes spread on his children's graves -- Anderson.

COOPER: One of the things the -- the governor also talked about was that he says due process was followed in this case.

KAYE: He did say that. And he's still saying that. In fact, listen to what he said about that just today.


PERRY: How many courts looked at this? There were nine federal courts that looked at this case, nine federal courts. It was before the Supreme Court of the United States four times.

Now, surely, Peggy (ph), you're not saying that the Supreme Court of the United States fouled up four times?


COOPER: So is that true?

KAYE: Well, I want to be really clear here, because more than half-a-dozen fire investigators have said that this fire was not arson, and the courts ruled on the evidence that's now in question.

The state commission was supposed to be the final word on whether or not an innocent man was put to death. It hired its own expert, Dr. Craig Beyler, who we mentioned was set to testify at this critical hearing on the case, when Governor Perry fired four members of the commission suddenly, just 48 hours before the hearing.

The hearing was abruptly canceled. And, tonight, Governor Perry blasted Dr. Beyler's findings, saying even Willingham's own defense attorney slammed the report.


PERRY: He has come to clearly believe in his guilt. And he said, that study that Mr. Beyler came forward with is nothing more than propaganda by the anti-death-penalty people across this country.


KAYE: Dr. Beyler told me tonight -- quote -- "I have no connection with any anti-death-penalty groups. My report is a scientific investigation with no political agenda."

Now, we should point out Dr. Beyler hasn't commented publicly on this matter until now, right here on 360. And he didn't hold back tonight. He told me -- quote -- "The governor's actions in making appointments to the commission represent a severe conflict of interest and is unethical. He should have recused himself from any appointments to that commission, because now it gives the appearance he's using his political clout to protect himself against any incrimination by the commissioner."

COOPER: All right, Randi, appreciate that. A lot to talk about, now that Governor Perry is weighing in.

With us now, Colleen McCain -- Colleen McCain Nelson, editorial writer for "The Dallas Morning News," and on the phone, Cameron Willingham's stepmother, Eugenia.

Eugenia, Governor Perry today said that your stepson was a monster -- those were the worst he used -- who murdered his kids. And he said that he was a guy who tried to beat his wife into an abortion.

What is your response?

EUGENIA WILLINGHAM, STEPMOTHER OF CAMERON TODD WILLINGHAM: My son was not a monster. I take offense in that.

He was a loving father. He and his wife did have a stormy relationship, but he didn't try to beat her into an abortion.

COOPER: Did he -- did e physically abuse his wife?

WILLINGHAM: Yes, he did. But she physically abused him. It was fair play, I guess you would call it.


COOPER: Colleen, at the end of the day, did the governor give a clear answer on why he removed four commission members when he did?

COLLEEN MCCAIN NELSON, EDITORIAL WRITER, "THE DALLAS MORNING NEWS": Well, he said that this is just standard operating procedure, nothing political to see here, just move along, that he can appoint and reappoint people as he sees fit.

But the timing is terrible. And, regardless of his motives, his actions have had a chilling effect on this important investigation. And he's managed to delay or possibly even derail this investigation. So, he hasn't really given a good explanation of why it was imperative to swap out all of these commission members 48 hours before the hearing.

COOPER: And, Eugenia, the -- the governor also said that Cameron in the death chamber -- quote -- "with his last breath," spewed what the governor called an obscenity-laced tirade against his wife. Is that true?


NELSON: He did. He also professed his innocence to the very end.

But just because Cameron Todd Willingham wasn't necessarily a Boy Scout, just because he had committed crimes in the past, it doesn't absolutely guarantee that he killed his family.

And what Governor Perry hasn't explained is what he knows that fire science experts don't. And he is basically saying, "I'm certain about this," without offering any explanation of what convinces him to be certain.

COOPER: Eugenia, this next question is to you. The governor also said that his -- that his own defense attorney believed he's guilty.

Do you know that to be true? And, also, did his wife think he was guilty?

WILLINGHAM: She didn't think he was guilty during the trial.

She turned on him two weeks before he was executed and asked permission to visit him for the first time. And she -- and he was excited. He wanted to see her, to see her thoughts. And when she got there, she blasted him.

That's the reason of the reaction he had at the execution. She was the only one that actually viewed his execution.

COOPER: And, to the defense attorney, do you know if his defense attorney believed he was guilty?

WILLINGHAM: Yes, he did.

He did not have any defense. That's the reason he had -- he told me his trial was a joke. That was his exact words. It was a big joke.

COOPER: Colleen...

WILLINGHAM: He didn't have any defense.

COOPER: Colleen, the governor has said, well, look, multiple courts looked at this, and -- and looked at the evidence.

The point a lot of these forensic investigators are now saying, multiple ones are saying, is that what was thought to be good forensic science in arson investigations back then in the '80s and '90s is now no longer seen as good. In fact, it's shown that it's just -- that a lot of the stuff they thought was true in arson investigations is not true.

NELSON: Absolutely.

And, in fact, just as a lot of advances in technology have resulted in exonerations related to DNA evidence, new advances in arson science could -- could result in the same thing. We could see some arson cases being overturned, because we know more about fires, we know more about arson.

And, so, what experts thought to be true in the past doesn't necessarily hold up anymore.

COOPER: I appreciate your time tonight, Colleen McCain Nelson.

And, also, Cameron's mom, Eugenia, I appreciate you calling in tonight. Thank you. WILLINGHAM: Thank you.

COOPER: We will continue to follow this case.

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