Wednesday, 7 October 2009

Junk politics and junk science: Rick Perry and Todd Willingham

I'm not the only one who thought Governor Perry's decision to replace the chair and two other members of the Forensic Science Commission was an outrageous example of politicizing Texas' investigation into junk science. In a post titled "The Cover Up," Paul Burka writes:
It’s not hard to figure out why Governor Perry removed the chairman and two members of the Texas Forensic Science Commission just before its scheduled meeting: He was about to be embarrassed, and not just in Texas but nationally. The commission was going to hear a report from an arson expert that the investigation leading to the conviction and execution of Cameron Willingham for the murder of his three daughters was flawed. The case has received national attention because of the possibility that Texas executed an innocent man on Perry’s watch. The removal of the three members forced the cancellation of the meeting and prevented the report from being heard. ...

Let’s call this what it is: a cover-up. The new chairman, Williamson County district attorney John Bradley, is a political ally of Perry’s who [is] famously tough on crime. It would be a conversion of mythic proportions if he were to agree with the investigators’ criticism. He now controls when the commission will meet, and you can bet that the report will not be heard or discussed in a public forum before the March 2 primary.
The Dallas News editorialized that "Gov. Rick Perry looks like a desperate man with his decision to jettison the chairman of the state's forensic science panel." At the Houston Chronicle, Rick Casey contacted state Sen. John Whitmire who told him the Texas Senate Criminal Justice Committee would be questioning Bradley's decision to cancel the hearing:

“I know John well,” said Houston Sen. John Whitmire, who chairs the Senate Criminal Justice Committee and pushed for the Forensic Science Commission after Houston's police lab blew up into a national scandal.

Whitmire said Bradley worked for that committee during legislative sessions when he was an assistant district attorney.

“I've never questioned his integrity,” Whitmire said. “He is very transparent.”

Whitmire said he talked to Bradley on Thursday morning and is “taking a wait-and-see approach” in hopes that “he won't let Perry's politics pull him down.”

“I told him, John, this is an opportunity to show what you're made of,” he said.

But Whitmire also said he will schedule a committee hearing in about a month to ask Bradley in what direction he plans to take the commission. One likely question, said Whitmire: Will Bradley reschedule the Willingham arson matter before the March primary?

That likely will a laboratory test of the hypothesis that Perry appointed him as a political puppet.

I'm definitely looking foward to Whitmire's hearing on this. Like Burka, I find it nearly unimaginable that the hearing will be rescheduled before the primary. Indeed, according to the New York Times Bradley is considering shutting down the investigation altogether:

Mr. Bradley said he did not know if he would continue the inquiry into the Willingham conviction that his predecessor had started. He said he wanted to consult with the lawmakers who created the commission about its mission.

Of course, the Willingham investigation precisely fits with the commission's "mission." The real problem is that the inquiry's outcome doesn't mesh with the governor's campaign themes. Perry told the Times it was "premature" to exclude arson in the Willingham case, but in reality all the same evidence was available when the governor approved Willingham's execution in 2004: Admitting this wasn't arson isn't "premature" but in fact egregiously belated.

David Grann, the author of a major New Yorker article on the case, commented on the replacements on the magazine's blog yesterday, calling the process "tainted." At The Atlantic, Ta-Nehisi Coates writes "I'm not even surprised. Again, it's very hard for people to admit error. They will lie, cover evidence, kill the messenger before admitting that they're wrong. The higher the stakes, the harder the heart, and the deader the mind."

I particularly enjoyed coverage of the incident from the Fort Worth Star Telegram. A Tarrant County prosecutor kicked off the commission told the paper, "I feel like a jilted lover, except that [the Governor is] prettier than I am." The same fellow said, "I felt like a decaying fish they were trying to dispose of [but] .... Since the job doesn't pay anything, I've been thrown out of better places."

This whole episode has recalled for me when the Governor eliminated the Criminal Justice Policy Council with a line item veto in 2005 because then-director Tony Fabelo wouldn't craft his findings to fit the Governor's agenda. Perry seemed to get a pass on that cynical maneuver back then, but this time it's coming back to bite him in the national press.


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