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It’s not too early to reschedule that meeting

Rick Casey talks to State Sen. John Whitmire about Rick Perry’s choice of Williamson County DA John Bradley as the replacement chair of the Texas Forensic Sciences Commission, and how we can tell if the intent was as sinister as we all now believe it to be.

“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?

I will acknowledge here that if Bradley does wind up doing the right thing, the effect he could have on Texas’ criminal justice system and the potential to reform it would be enormous, quite likely far greater than it would have been with a less Nixon-goes-to-China type in the chair. As far as that goes, I hope Sen. Whitmire’s faith in his integrity is not misplaced.

But let’s be clear here. Only John Bradley can put aside the perception that what Rick Perry did here was a naked attempt to kill the Commission and discredit its investigation into the Willingham case. And he can take a huge first step in that direction by announcing, right now, that he intends to reschedule the Commission’s meeting that was supposed to take place before the Perry purge happened once he has familiarized himself with the materials. He doesn’t have to actually reschedule the meeting, he just has to say that he intends to do so once he’s up to speed. There’s no reason he needs to wait to announce that intent. Indeed, if he still hasn’t said anything by the time Whitmire has that committee hearing in a month or so, I’ll take it as solid evidence that Bradley is in on the fix. All he has to do is affirm that he plans to continue his predecessor’s work. It’s that simple. Grits has more.

Meanwhile, some political pros ponder the implications of Perry’s actions.

For Democrats, it was an ah-ha moment, a suggestion that by abruptly removing three members of a forensic science commission Gov. Rick Perry was trying to derail an investigation into a case raising the disturbing possibility Texas may have executed an innocent man.

For other people, not so much.

“Unless there’s real solid evidence that the guy didn’t do it and Rick Perry’s people screwed up a review, I can’t see it becoming an issue,” GOP analyst Royal Masset said.

[…]

But what, if anything, voters will make of the brouhaha, both in the March primary and in November, remains to be seen.

“I think for most Texans, this is an opportunity to sit back and milk the entertainment value as it goes forward,” said Cal Jillson, a political scientist at Southern Methodist University.

[…]

“If it turns out we executed an innocent man, that’s bad and the state ought to be held accountable,” said Gary Polland, former chairman of the Harris County Republican Party and an attorney. But new evidence, and new interpretations of evidence, routinely come to light as scientific methods advance, he said.

The bigger issue, he said, is whether Perry was attempting to manipulate the process.

“The idea that we should change commissioners to avoid an outcome smacks of a cover up,” Polland said. “Why do that? If I advised the governor, I would have told him, ‘Let the commission finish their investigation and, whatever they come up with, they come up with.’ ”

I think Masset and Jillson are correct in their perceptions, but I also think Polland nails the issue, and shows how it could be used effectively as a political weapon against Perry. It’s not about the death penalty, it’s about Perry meddling in places he shouldn’t be, which as Burka notes is something that he’s done a lot of lately. Connect it to some of these other things, especially the shenanigans with the regents at Texas Tech and Texas A&M, and there’s a strong narrative you can build. Kay Bailey Hutchison is in the best position to do that, which doesn’t exactly fill me with confidence. Tom Schieffer and Hank Gilbert can get some traction with this as well, though they’ll have to push back harder against Perry making this about the death penalty than KBH would have had to. But it’s there, and it’s a soft spot for him, and the more this drags out, the softer it should be.

On the other hand, one presumes that Team Perry, which does know a thing or two about politics, has considered all this and decided that this was the less-damaging alternative. The Contrarian games it out.

It seems to me — and I’ll preface this by saying it’s speculation — that Perry’s people have made the calculation that taking their lumps now is better than the alternative.

Imagine this scenario: It’s early next year, right before the March primary, and the Forensic Science Commission– a state government body whose members Perry helped appoint — issues its final report on Willingham, which concludes that Perry had overseen the execution of an innocent man (and allowed it even though his office knew of mitigating evidence before the execution). That’s the nightmare scenario they’re trying to avoid.

I suspect the Perry people are hoping the current fiasco blows over, and forgotten in a few months. Meanwhile, with John Bradley in charge of the commission, the Willingham investigation can be scuttled entirely or slow-walked till after the election or watered down so the final conclusions aren’t so critical of Perry.

It’s a risky play, though. It’s not clear this issue will be forgotten any time soon.

For one, the Craig Beyler report — with its devastating critique of the forensics in Willingham’s case — has already been released and isn’t going away.

And a lot of people are outraged by Perry’s decision and will likely keep this issue alive.

I don’t think it’s going to go away, but the question is whether it will gain traction and force Perry to retreat or get shelled, or if it will turn into the kind of he-said/she-said bickering that makes most people tune out. That’s why I think it needs to be part of a larger narrative about Perry, that he’ll meddle where he shouldn’t whenever the reality of something doesn’t fit with his worldview. It’s part of a pattern, and that pattern is as much a problem for Texas as Rick Perry’s indifference to a doomed man’s innocence is.

Finally, Dog Canyon suggests that Perry may have actually violated federal law by taking the action he did. I don’t see anything coming out of that, but it’s worth thinking about.

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2 Comments

  1. […] Sen. John Whitmire, who has previously indicated that he will hold a hearing to inquire about the current status of the Texas Forensic Science Commission, has reiterated that […]

  2. […] of this should come as a surprise, of course. Bradley has been very clear about the fact that he has no real interest in pursuing the Willingham investigation. Very […]