Last August, forensic fire expert Craig Beyler published a report commissioned by the Texas Forensic Science Commission on the case of Cameron Todd Willingham. Willingham was executed in 2004 for setting a fire that killed his three daughters. Beyler’s report was damning. He concluded that there was no evidence Willingham set the fire, or even that the fire was intentional. Beyler wrote that the state fire investigators who testified against Willingham had “poor understandings of fire science,” had a “”predisposition to find arson in his cases,” and their opinions weren’t founded in science but rather were “nothing more than a collection of personal beliefs.”
Beyler was the ninth forensic fire expert to reach the conclusion that there was no evidence Willingham set the fire.
Last month, the New Yorker followed up with an in-depth investigation by David Grann arguing that Willingham was innocent. A national discussion followed over whether Willingham represents the first known innocent person executed in the modern era of capital punishment.
The Forensic Science Commission was supposed to meet today to review Beyler’s report and Willingham’s case. But that isn’t going to happen. Texas Gov. Rick Perry, who signed off on Willingham’s execution, has abruptly replaced three of the commission’s members, forcing the cancellation of today’s meeting. Notably, he replaced the head of the commission—defense attorney Sam Bassett—with John Bradley, a district attorney. Another member Perry replaced, prosecutor Alan Levy, warned Perry’s office weeks ago that replacing members now could disrupt the Willingham investigation.
Perry says the commission members had reached the end of their terms, so their removal was “business as usual.” Those familiar with the commission say reappointments are common, and Perry’s timing is suspicious.
Perry also continues to defend Willingham’s execution. The Associated Press reports that after the Beyler report and New Yorker articles came out, Perry referred to the nine forensic arson experts who criticized the trial testimony of two local fire chiefs as “supposed experts,” adding that he hadn’t “seen anything that would cause me to think that the decision” to put Willingham to death “was not correct.”