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Suspicious Shakeup in Texas

Christopher Hill,
Capital Punishment Project
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October 2, 2009

On Wednesday, Texas Gov. Rick Perry dismissed three members of the Texas Forensic Science Commission, including the chairperson.

His timing was extremely suspicious, to say the least.

The commission was set to hear testimony today from an arson expert it had hired, Craig L. Beyler, who reviewed the “expert” arson testimony used in 1992 to convict Cameron Todd Willingham of killing his three children by setting their house on fire. In a detailed report (PDF), Beyler recently criticized the “expert” arson opinions used to convict Willingham as “nothing more than a collection of personal beliefs that have nothing to do with science-based fire investigation.” Beyler’s conclusions, which echo the findings of eight forensic arson specialists who have looked at the case, make it abundantly clear that Willingham, executed by the State of Texas in 2004 under Gov. Perry’s watch, was almost certainly innocent.

The governor had compelling information back in 2004 that Willingham’s conviction was based on junk science, but he ignored it and allowed the execution to go forward. Last month, he expressed confidence that Willingham was guilty and disparaged Beyler and the other experts who have reached a different, science-based conclusion.

Then on Wednesday, he announced he was replacing three of the commission’s members, and chose a Texas prosecutor as the new chairperson. This change delays Beyler’s testimony and any other expert findings from his investigation until after the upcoming gubernatorial election.

Gov. Perry said that the change was “business as usual.” Unfortunately, his words ring all too true. Willingham is not the first likely innocent person executed by the State of Texas. Others include Carlos De Luna and Ruben Cantu. But the state has never acknowledged any of these tragic mistakes.

Business as usual, all right.

By Matt Simpson, Policy Strategist, ACLU of Texas and Christopher Hill, State Strategies Coodinator, ACLU Capital Punishment Project

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