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Rick Perry: The presidential candidate dogged by a ghost?

June 14, 2011 |  3:40 pm

Willingham Texas Gov. Rick Perry may want to run for president. So let me reintroduce you a former constituent of his, Cameron Todd Willingham

Perry, who may soon announce his presidential bid, oversaw the 2004 execution of Willingham, a father of three convicted for the apparent arson murder of his young daughters. Problem was, the evidence used to prove Willingham set the fire that killed his children was based on shoddy science and obsolete investigation techniques, facts that were brought to Perry's attention before Willingham's death. Declaring his innocence to the end, Willingham was executed 12 years after his children's deaths.  

The New Yorker published a lengthy piece in 2009 detailing the whole affair, a depressing portrayal of a government more interested in self-preservation than in serving justice. Most chilling was the Texas justice system's seeming indifference to condemned killers the moment they land on death row. Here's a disturbing excerpt:

The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals was known for upholding convictions even when overwhelming exculpatory evidence came to light. In 1997, DNA testing proved that sperm collected from a rape victim did not match Roy Criner, who had been sentenced to ninety-nine years for the crime. Two lower courts recommended that the verdict be overturned, but the Court of Criminal Appeals upheld it, arguing that Criner might have worn a condom or might not have ejaculated. Sharon Keller, who is now the presiding judge on the court, stated in a majority opinion, “The new evidence does not establish innocence.” In 2000, George W. Bush pardoned Criner. (Keller was recently charged with judicial misconduct, for refusing to keep open past five o’clock a clerk’s office in order to allow a last-minute petition from a man who was executed later that night.)

On October 31, 1997, the Court of Criminal Appeals denied Willingham's writ.

Another one:

Without having visited the fire scene, [fire investigator Dr. Gerald Hurstor] says, it was impossible to pinpoint the cause of the blaze. But, based on the evidence, he had little doubt that it was an accidental fire -- one caused most likely by the space heater or faulty electrical wiring. It explained why there had never been a motive for the crime. Hurst concluded that there was no evidence of arson, and that a man who had already lost his three children and spent twelve years in jail was about to be executed based on “junk science.” Hurst wrote his report in such a rush that he didn’t pause to fix the typos....

Hurst’s findings had helped to exonerate more than ten people. Hurst even reviewed the scientific evidence against Willingham’s friend Ernest Willis, who had been on death row for the strikingly similar arson charge. Hurst says, “It was like I was looking at the same case. Just change the names.” In his report on the Willis case, Hurst concluded that not “a single item of physical evidence . . . supports a finding of arson.” A second fire expert hired by Ori White, the new district attorney in Willis’s district, concurred. After seventeen years on death row, Willis was set free. “I don’t turn killers loose,” White said at the time. “If Willis was guilty, I’d be retrying him right now. And I’d use Hurst as my witness. He’s a brilliant scientist.” White noted how close the system had come to murdering an innocent man. “He did not get executed, and I thank God for that,” he said.

On February 13th, four days before Willingham was scheduled to be executed, he got a call from Reaves, his attorney. Reaves told him that the fifteen members of the Board of Pardons and Paroles, which reviews an application for clemency and had been sent Hurst’s report, had made their decision.

"What is it?" Willingham asked.

"I’m sorry," Reaves said. "They denied your petition."

Perry denied Willingham a stay of execution, an action that may have been forgivable in retrospect had the governor expressed a sincere desire to review the facts of the case given the overwhelming post-execution evidence that Texas made an irreversible mistake. On the contrary, Perry frustrated an investigation by the Texas Forensic Science Commission, replacing three of its members days before the board was set to discuss a report that cast serious doubt on the evidence used to send Willingham to the lethal injection gurney. The meeting was canceled. 

The Times wrote two editorialsexpressing dismay Willingham's execution and Perry's obstruction of the investigation. Still, the case faded from the national discussion and Perry went on in 2010 to win his third full term as governor.

Texas executes far more people than any other state, so it's understandable that Lone Star State Republicans would give their governor a pass. But a Perry candidacy might prod conservatives in less execution-friendly states (such as, say, New Hampshire, which last knotted a noose in 1939) to answer for his apparent indifference to profound injustice.

Texas let Perry off the hook; the rest of the nation may not be so forgiving.

RELATED:

GOP rivals go easy on Romney in first major debate

Editorial: Waiting for a death-penalty debate

Editorial: Making forensic science scientific

Editorial: The execution of Cameron Todd Willingham

-- Paul Thornton

Photo: Cameron Todd Willingham. Credit: Associated Press.

 

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