The swirling force of Texas politics

Perry Further Shakes Up Forensics Panel

By MICHAEL GRACZYK
|  Saturday, Oct 10, 2009  |  Updated 8:45 AM CDT
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Perry Further Shakes Up Forensics Panel

Taylor Jones/Getty Images

Gov. Rick Perry has further shaken up a state forensics panel that was set to review a report on a faulty arson investigation that lead to an inmate's execution.

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Gov. Rick Perry has further shaken up a state panel that was set to review a report concluding that a faulty arson investigation led to a Texas inmate's execution, naming a criminal defense attorney on Friday to fill a board vacancy and replacing one medical examiner with another.

Lawyer Lance Evans of Fort Worth succeeds Samuel Bassett, who was told last week he wouldn't be reappointed to the Texas Forensic Science Commission.

Evans is state membership chair of the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, criminal law section co-chair of the Tarrant County Bar Association and a past board member of the Texas Criminal Defense Lawyers Association.

Perry's office also announced Friday that Randall Frost of Boerne, the chief medical examiner for Bexar County, was replacing Sridhar Natarajan, a medical examiner from Lubbock.

The two new members' terms run until Sept. 1, 2011.

The commission, which oversees the professional conduct of forensic laboratories and facilities, was to consider last week the arson findings that led to the 2004 execution of Cameron Todd Willingham. He was condemned for setting a fire that killed his three small children in 1991.

Perry last week ousted Bassett and two other board members, including the chairman. He named as new chairman Williamson County District Attorney John Bradley, who canceled the scheduled meeting. It hasn't been rescheduled.

Perry, a Republican who has been governor since 2000 and is seeking a third full four-year term, has defended the board changes as routine.

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. A state fire marshal, who is now deceased, and a local fire investigator ruled it was arson, that a liquid accelerant was ignited and the blaze was set to prevent anyone from rescuing the children. The investigator stands by the findings.

The Forensic Science Commission hired Baltimore-based arson expert Craig Beyler to study the case after critics of capital punishment raised questions about the case. Beyler concluded that the arson findings were scientifically unsupported and that investigators at the scene had "poor understandings of fire science."

Beyler's report has bolstered arguments from advocacy groups that Willingham was innocent and wrongly 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 has said it was better to appoint new members before they started work on the report.

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