AUSTIN — A statewide lawyers group that recommends nominees to the Texas Forensic Science Commission urged Gov. Rick Perry to retain commission Chairman Sam Bassett less than four weeks before the Austin lawyer was ousted in a commission shake-up that has stalled an inquiry involving a 2004 execution.
Three members of the commission, including two who were dismissed in the shake-up, also wrote Perry to urge Bassett’s reappointment, according to interviews and letters obtained Tuesday.
Perry has drawn national attention for his dismissal of Bassett and commission members Alan Levy, a prosecutor in the Tarrant County district attorney’s office, and Aliece Watts, a forensic scientist who lives in Burleson.
The dismissals were announced two days before the nine-member panel was scheduled to review a forensic report challenging the arson findings that that led to Cameron Todd Willingham’s execution five years ago.
Willingham, of Corsicana, was found guilty in the deaths of his three daughters in a 1991 fire. He said he was asleep in his house when the fire started and denied that he deliberately killed them.
Perry has defended the dismissals as part of the normal appointments process, but critics have accused the state’s long-serving governor of gutting the commission to avoid potentially embarrassing findings while he is battling for re-election.
Bassett, offering fresh details of events preceding his firing, said Tuesday that he first realized that his position might be in danger after learning that Perry’s office had asked the Texas Criminal Defense Lawyers Association to recommend possible replacements.
The association, one of the groups that make recommendations on nominations to the panel, submitted a list of 10 names but strongly recommended that Bassett be reappointed.
"In our opinion, he has done an excellent job and there is a great deal of unfinished business that should not be interrupted," Stanley G. Schneider, president of the association, said in a Sept. 4 letter to Perry. The association "believes that he will bring continuity and unique experience to the Commission which will aid the Commission in its important work."
Bassett said that Levy, Watts and a third commission member — forensic scientist Sarah Kerrigan of The Woodlands — also wrote letters to Perry in Bassett’s behalf after the chairman e-mailed fellow members saying that he may not be reappointed.
"I just wanted to let them know," Bassett said. "I kept the language neutral because I didn’t want them to think I was pressuring them to support me."
Katherine Cesinger, deputy secretary in the governor’s office, said in an e-mail that Perry appointed "new individuals" to fill terms that expired on Sept. 1 "as a routine part of the appointments process.
"There are a number of things taken into consideration when selecting appointees to fill a position, including letters from concerned stakeholders, among other considerations, which is ultimately the governor’s decision," she said.
The commission’s new chairman, Williamson County District Attorney John Bradley of Georgetown, told the Star-Telegram on Tuesday that he "has a lot to learn and absorb" and does not have a timetable for putting the Willingham case back before the commission.
"I don’t know enough about that case or the commission to answer that question," Bradley said in a telephone interview, saying that it’s "going to take quite a while" to get up to speed on the Willingham case.
Baltimore arson expert Craig Beyler, in a report disputed in a recent rebuttal by the city of Corsicana, has challenged the arson investigation that contributed to Willingham’s capital murder conviction. Beyler was scheduled to appear before the commission last Friday, but the meeting was canceled after Perry’s dismissals.
Levy said he wrote a letter saying that Bassett should be reappointed "because continuity was important in the commission’s business because of this particular case," the Willingham inquiry.
Watts, a forensic scientist at Integrated Forensic Laboratories in Euless, said by e-mail that she was backed up by casework and has "nothing else to add."
In a Sept. 4 letter, Kerrigan recommended Bassett’s reappointment "in the strongest possible terms," saying that the chairman had helped the panel get on track after it confronted a lack of funding and a backlog of complaints.
She told Perry that reappointing Bassett "will ensure a measure of stability to the Commission during a time of great scrutiny."
Schneider’s letter, also dated Sept. 4, pointed out that Bassett had been twice confirmed by the Senate Nominations Committee.
"He has never missed a meeting," said the association president. "Under his leadership, the Commission has developed a reporting system and a website for the filing of complaints by members of the criminal defense bar, laboratory personnel and the public."
Elements of the letter-campaign were reported in an online article Monday by Time magazine, the latest of several reports into the dismissals by the national news media.
Science called flawed
The Forensic Science Commission agreed to investigate in 2008 after defense attorneys claimed that Willingham was wrongfully convicted on the basis of flawed scientific evidence. Beyler, a nationally recognized fire investigator in Baltimore, was commissioned by the state panel to conduct an independent review. He submitted his 55-page report in August, saying methods used in the investigation could not fully support a finding of arson.
But Corsicana released a 21-page response last week accusing Beyler of distorting the facts. The report in the "Willingham matter" was prepared by Corsicana Fire Chief Donald McMullen.
"Contrary to what has been reported in the media, Dr. Beyler did not conclude that the cause of the fire was accidental and he did not conclude that the fire was not arson," McMullen said. "In addition, Dr. Beyler did not prove (or apparently attempt to prove) that Todd Willingham did not murder his children."
McMullen said that Beyler’s "reliance" on Willingham’s statements and testimony "is puzzling because Mr. Willingham gave materially inconsistent accounts of what happened." For example, Willingham said he kicked down the front door while it was burning to escape but did not sustain injuries to his feet, McMullen said.