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Cameron Todd Willingham: Texas Governor Dismisses 3 Commission Members Just 48 Hours Before Arson Review

JEFF CARLTON   09/30/09 08:00 PM ET   AP

DALLAS — A report concluding a faulty investigation led to a Texas man's execution won't be reviewed by a state board as planned Friday after Gov. Rick Perry abruptly removed three people from the panel, forcing the meeting's cancellation.

Perry, who has said the execution was appropriate, replaced the head of the Texas Forensic Science Commission and two of its eight other board members Wednesday. The upheaval on the commission came just 48 hours before it was to consider a report critical of the arson finding leading to Cameron Todd Willingham's execution for the deaths of his three daughters in a 1991 fire.

Baltimore-based arson expert Craig Beyler, who was hired by the commission, concluded the arson finding was scientifically unsupported and investigators at the scene had "poor understandings of fire science." His report has bolstered arguments from advocacy groups that Willingham was innocent and wrongly executed.

Perry told The Associated Press the terms of the dismissed board members were expiring and replacing them "was pretty standard business as usual." But several board members have served more than one term and had their appointments renewed.

Earlier this month, Perry expressed confidence in Willingham's guilt and derided reports questioning the arson investigation, referring to their authors as "supposed experts." He said he had not "seen anything that would cause me to think that the decision" to execute Willingham "was not correct."

Perry was governor in 2004, when Willingham was executed.

The state commission doesn't have the power to rule on Willingham's guilt or innocence but was expected to release a report next year on the validity of the arson investigation.

Perry appointed Williamson County District Attorney John Bradley as the new head of the panel, replacing Austin attorney Sam Bassett. Bradley acknowledged he and the other new member appointed by Perry have a steep learning curve ahead of them. Friday's canceled meeting has not been rescheduled.

"I don't see how we can successfully have a meeting with the board turnover and lack of time for an orientation and education for the new board members," Bradley said.

The other new appointee, forensic scientist Norma Jean Farley, said she learned of her appointment Tuesday. Perry can't appoint a third replacement until he receives a recommendation from the Texas Criminal Defense Lawyers Association.

Bassett said he suspected he would be replaced last month after Beyler issued his report. At that point, he said, he heard Perry's office began looking for new candidates.

He said he hopes the Willingham investigation is completed. "In my view, we should not fail to investigate important forensic issues in cases simply because there might be political ramifications," he said.

Prosecutor Alan Levy, who heads the criminal division in the Tarrant County DA's office in Fort Worth and supports the death penalty, said he learned he had been fired in a Tuesday afternoon phone call.

"I was a little surprised, given the timing," Levy said. "The commission should do its job and follow the facts. And if the facts are that this is not good science, then so be it."

Willingham, 36, was convicted of setting the fire that killed 2-year-old Amber and 1-year-old twins Karmon and Kameron on Dec. 23, 1991, in the family's Corsicana home.

He maintained his innocence, even from the death chamber. But a now dead state fire marshal and a local fire investigator ruled it was arson, testifying a liquid accelerant was ignited and the blaze was set to prevent anyone from rescuing the children. The investigator stands by his conclusions.

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Associated Press writer Juan A. Lozano in Houston contributed to this report.

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Filed by T.J. Ortenzi  |