Controversy Builds in Texas Over an Execution
Questions about whether Gov. Rick Perry allowed the execution of a man
some arson experts say may have been innocent, and then hindered an
investigation into the evidence, continue to reverberate across Texas,
where issues surrounding capital punishment have rarely stirred such
The execution gurney in the Texas death chamber, at Huntsville. Cameron T.
Willingham was put to death there in 2004.
On Sunday, Mark White, who as governor himself was a strong death penalty
supporter, said he believed that the state should reconsider capital
punishment because, among other reasons, there was too great a risk of
putting innocent people to death.
"There is a very strong case to be made for a review of our death penalty
statutes and even look at the possibility of having life without parole so
we dont look up one day and determine that we as the State of Texas have
executed someone who is in fact innocent," Mr. White, a Democrat who was
governor from 1983 to 1987, told The Houston Chronicle and The San Antonio
Mr. White's remarks came with Mr. Perry, a Republican and staunch backer
of the death penalty, under criticism for not granting a 30-day reprieve
to Cameron T. Willingham in 2004, when an arson expert working with Mr.
Willinghams defense concluded that the evidence that had put him on death
row was seriously flawed.
Mr. White said he did not intend for his comments to be taken as criticism
of Mr. Perry's handling of the Willingham case. But, he said, the case is
one example "of why I think the system is so unreliable."
Three weeks ago Mr. Perry replaced the chairman and 2 other members of the
State Forensic Science Commission, which was about to hold hearings on the
evidence in the case. The new chairman, a close ally of the governor,
promptly canceled a hearing at which a 2nd, independent arson expert was
to testify. The commissions expert, Craig L. Beyler of Baltimore, had
concluded in a lengthy report that the evidence did not prove that Mr.
Willingham set the fire that killed his 3 daughters in 1991.
Since then, the governor has found himself on the defensive, with
editorial writers, columnists and political opponents in both parties
accusing him of trying to protect his future at the expense of determining
Last week Mr. Perry defended his decision and struck back at his critics.
"Willingham was a monster," he said. "Here's a guy who murdered his 3
children, who tried to beat his wife into an abortion so he wouldnt have
those kids. Person after person has stood up and testified to the facts in
The governor has pointed out that just before the execution, Mr.
Willingham's conviction was sustained by appellate courts, including the
United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit. That court ruled
that the affidavit of the defenses arson expert, Gerald Hurst, did not
exonerate Mr. Willingham, since there was other physical evidence that
contrary to his claims, he had not tried to save his children.
Mr. Perry has also refused to release the memorandum from his general
counsel on which he based his decision to let the execution proceed. He
says the memorandum is protected by attorney-client privilege.
Katherine Cesinger, a spokeswoman for Mr. Perry, said that on the night of
the execution, the governor's general counsel thoroughly briefed him on
the report of the arson expert and various appellate court decisions. He
denied the reprieve, she said, because the courts "all agreed that the
Hurst report was no more than an opinion and did not merit reopening the
Mr. Willingham's guilt aside, the governor's actions have left him
vulnerable to accusations that he tampered with the work of a supposedly
independent commission for political reasons.
The accusations gained weight when Sam Bassett, the Austin lawyer whom the
governor dismissed 3 weeks ago after 2 terms as head of the commission,
said last week that the governor's general counsel, David G. Cabrales,
pressured Mr. Bassett earlier this year to drop the inquiry. Mr. Cabrales
has not responded to Mr. Bassett's account.
So popular is the death penalty here that Mr. Perry's main opponent in
next year's Republican primary for governor, Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison,
has taken the rather novel approach of suggesting that his actions have
lent ammunition to opponents of capital punishment.
"The only thing Rick Perry's actions have accomplished is giving liberals
an argument to discredit the death penalty," she said in a statement. "We
should never do anything to create a cloud of controversy over it with
actions that look like a cover-up."
(source: New York Times)