Texas Gov. Could Face Criminal Charges for Interfering with Death Penalty
Gov. Rick Perry (R-TX) is facing questions about his responsibility for
wrongfully executing Cameron Todd Willingham, convicted of arson for a
fire that killed his daughters, despite new expert analysis showing there
was in fact zero evidence of arson. An investigation into the execution
has already found that Perry was given the new evidence to review which
should have shown him that all the evidence of guilt was actually
scientifically unfounded testimony but chose not to stay the execution
pending review of the trial process and evidence.
When the investigation began looking into Gov. Perry's review of the
process, what he knew and when he knew it, he refused to reappoint the
sitting chair of the commission and replaced him and two other members
with conservatives sympathetic to his point of view. The new commissioner
has canceled testimony from a leading arson expert that would discredit
the case used to execute Willingham.
Gov. Perry is locked in a serious challenge within his own party from Sen.
Kay Bailey Hutchison, who says his politicization of the death penalty has
put the entire system at risk. There are also mounting concerns the
governor in fact saw the new evidence and even received a direct
communication from Willinghams lawyer requesting a stay, but deliberately
chose to ignore clearly exculpatory evidence for political reasons.
If that is indeed the case, Gov. Perry might face legal consequences for
knowingly putting an innocent man to death to further his own political
career. That question has not been put forward explicitly by the state's
investigators, and Gov. Perry's moves to change the makeup of the panel by
appointing potential allies are a clear attempt to prevent it from being
posed formally, but allegations the governor's office sought to halt the
investigation suggest precisely the possibility he knew he was executing
an innocent man and umis worried about the legal and political fallout
should his actions be formally investigated.
For his part, Gov. Perry is now aggressively attacking Willingham in the
court of public opinion, seeking to make his death seem a welcome end to a
reign of terror by calling him a "monster" and saying he beat his wife to
force her to have an abortion. Perry hopes to persuade a majority of
voters to see him as a man who did his civic duty in putting a murderer to
death. But even Republicans are now questioning Perrys personal
responsibility and commitment to the integrity of the system.
Could a governor empowered by law to approve death sentences, but also to
halt them before they are enforced, actually face homicide charges, should
he be seen to have knowingly executed an innocent man for personal gain?
Certainly federal law provides ways such a charge and/or verdict could
come to pass for instance felony murder based on abuse of office, or
violating a citizens civil rights by denying him his day in court (with
the new evidence).
What is perhaps more surprising than that this situation has arisen or
that such questions are being raised this has long been expected to some
degree, given the radically pro-death penalty political climate in Texas
is the fact that Gov. Perry appears to have so brazenly and publicly
sought to interfere in the process and evince his personal wishes that the
matter never be fully reviewed.
The point has many times been made, by both opponents and responsible
proponents of capital punishment, that everyone, every citizen and every
politician, had the same very real interest in making sure the system
never permits an innocent person anywhere near death row. Perry, however,
seems determined not to take any action that would ensure the integrity of
Either he does not claim and does not want any responsibility over the
system, in which case, one imagines he is unfit to serve at the top of it,
or he has taken it upon himself to impede the progress of justice, conceal
evidence and unilaterally assert the reliability of a process, while
refusing to use its last true humane tool to scrutinize the process and
side with justice, in which case
It gets easier to see over time why Perry wants the investigation halted.
He has put far more Americans to death than any living official. And
Willingham was not the first case he simply shrugged off as settled and in
no need of review. How many of those cases will suddenly become suspect,
if 1) Willingham is formally found innocent and 2) evidence emerges that
the governor ignored exculpatory evidence and executed an innocent man,
not just as a result of a travesty of justice but with specific personal
political and professional gain in mind? In how many of those cases did
Perry consciously or even explicitly consider personal political benefit
as tied to ending a human life?
Opponents of the death penalty already smell blood in the water and are
beginning to view Perry as easy prey. If they can show that the single
most prolific executioner in the United States ignored evidence, gamed the
system and put people to death banking on the political benefits of having
done so, it will breathe new life into the abolitionist movement. Perry
must fight not only that political battle, but also the perception that
his attempt to end the investigation might be a criminal coverup.
Gov. Rick Perry reiterates support for Texas' death penalty process
Gov. Rick Perry reiterated his support for the state's death penalty
system Tuesday after one of his predecessors raised questions about its
Questions about the arson investigation that led to the execution of
Cameron Todd Willingham prompted former Gov. Mark White, a Democrat who
ran as a strong advocate of capital punishment in the 1980s, to say last
week that he now opposes it. Perry said Texas' system is sound.
"Our process works, and I don't see anything out there that would merit
calling for a moratorium on the Texas death penalty," he said after voting
early on a slate of constitutional amendments. "It's fair and appropriate,
and we will continue with it."
Perry has been criticized for replacing members of the Texas Forensic
Science Commission as it was about to hear from a scientist whose review
raised doubts about the case.
Willingham was executed in 2004 in the 1991 Corsicana house fire that
killed his 3 children.
(source: Dallas Morning News)
Texas court denies pair of death row appeals
The highest criminal court in Texas has denied appeals from 2 death row
inmates, including a hit man in a murder-for-hire plot and another man
convicted of killing his wife.
The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals on Wednesday affirmed the convictions
and death sentences of John Steven Gardner and Howard Paul Guidry.
Guidry was convicted in 1997 for the shooting death of 33-year-old Farah
Fratta in Harris County.
Fratta's husband, former Houston public safety officer Robert Fratta,
masterminded the plot to have his wife killed.
Gardner was convicted of murdering his wife, Tammy, in her Collin County
home, shortly before their divorce was to become final in 2005.
(source: Associated Press)
March against the death penalty
Would you oppose the death penalty if it were proven that Texas has
executed an innocent man? If so, remember this name: Cameron Todd
Willingham. He was innocent and Texas executed him. There are plenty of
executed death-row inmates with strong claims of innocence, such as David
Spence, Ruben Cantu, Carlos De Luna and Gary Graham. But the state of
Texas has never admitted to killing an innocent person. Willinghams case
could become the first case in which the state of Texas will have to admit
that it made a mistake.
Willingham was executed for arson and murder in 2004. He professed his
innocence until he was strapped down on the execution gurney, saying "I am
an innocent man convicted of a crime I did not commit. I have been
persecuted for 12 years for something I did not do."
Now, we know that he was telling the truth. In August, Craig Beyler, the
investigator hired by the Texas Forensic Science Commission to review the
Willingham case, released his report in which he found that "a finding of
arson could not be sustained" by a scientific analysis. He concluded that
the fire in the Willingham case was accidental and not arson. In fact,
there was no arson, so there was no crime.
David Grann wrote a 16,000-word article for The New Yorker in which he
discredited all the evidence used to convict and sentence Willingham.
Barry Scheck, co-director of the Innocence Project said, "After reading
Grann's report, fair-minded people will know beyond a reasonable doubt
that an innocent person was executed."
The proven execution of an innocent person should have resulted in a call
by Gov. Rick Perry for a statewide moratorium on executions and a
commission to conduct a comprehensive study of the Texas death penalty
system. But shortly before a scheduled Texas Forensic Science Commission
meeting to discuss this case, in a move that looks like an election-year
cover-up, Perry replaced several members of the commission with his own
political allies, including John Bradley, a tough-on-crime Williamson
County defense attorney, as chairman. Bradley canceled the public hearing
indefinitely, leaving the investigation in limbo.
Scott Cobb, director of the Texas Moratorium Network, said, "No matter how
things turn out, people are looking at the death penalty in a new light.
They're thinking if it could have happened to Willingham, then it could
happen to many other people."
U.S. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia wrote in 2006 that in the modern
judicial system there has not been "a single case not one in which it is
clear that a person was executed for a crime he did not commit. If such an
event had occurred in recent years, we would not have to hunt for it; the
innocent's name would be shouted from the rooftops."
This Saturday, at the 10th Annual March to Abolish the Death Penalty,
people from all walks of life and all parts of Texas, the U.S. and other
countries will gather at the Texas Capitol to raise their voices and shout
out Todd Willingham's name. The march is a gathering of activists,
exonerated inmates and family members of the victims and those on death
Eugenia Willingham, mother of Todd Willingham, will be among the special
guests at the march on Saturday at 2 p.m. on the South Steps of the
On Friday, students can also join a panel discussion with exonerated
death-row inmates Shujaa Graham and Curtis McCarty (7 p.m. in the Texas
Unions Sinclair Suite, Room 3.128).
I encourage everyone to attend the march to support the Willingham family
as they fight to prove that Todd Willingham was innocent.
(source: Daily Texan; Hooman Hedayati is a government and Middle Eastern
studies senior and member of the Campaign to End the Death Penalty.
One Reporter's Lonely Beat, Witnessing Executions
Of all the consequences of shrinking newsrooms, one of the oddest is this:
Fewer journalists are available to watch people die. But Michael Graczyk
has witnessed more than 300 deaths, and many of those were people he had
come to know.
An Associated Press reporter based in Houston, Mr. Graczyk covers death
penalty cases in Texas, the state that uses capital punishment far more
than any other, and since the 1980s, he has attended nearly every
execution the state has carried out he has lost track of the precise
count. Whenever possible, he has also interviewed the condemned killers
and their victims' families.
What makes his record all the more extraordinary is that often, Mr.
Graczyk's has been the only account of the execution given to the world at
large. Covering executions was once considered an obligatory if often
ghoulish part of what a newspaper did, like writing up school board
meetings and printing box scores, but one by one, such dutiful traditions
have fallen away.
A generation ago, he had plenty of company from other journalists at the
prison at Huntsville, about an hour's drive north of Houston, where
executions in Texas are carried out. But then Texas executions went from
rare to routine, and shrinking news organizations found it harder to
justify the expense of what was, from most parts of the state, a long
"There are times when I'm the only person present who doesnt have a stake
in the outcome," he said.
Seeing inmates in the death chamber, strapped to a gurney and moments away
from lethal injections, he has heard them greet him by name, confess to
their crimes for the first time, sing, pray and, once, spit out a
concealed handcuff key. He has stood shoulder to shoulder with other
witnesses who stared, wept, fainted, turned their backs or, in one case,
No reporter, warden, chaplain or guard has seen nearly as many executions
as Mr. Graczyk, 59, Texas prison officials say. In fact, he has probably
witnessed more than any other American. It could be emotionally and
politically freighted work, but he takes it with a low-key, matter-of-fact
lack of sentiment, refusing to hint at his own view of capital punishment.
Given a choice between the death chamber' 2viewing rooms, he usually
chooses the one for the victim's family rather than the side for the
inmate', partly "ecause I can get out faster and file the story faster."
"My job is to tell a story and tell what' going on, and if I tell you that
I get emotional on one side or another, I open myself to criticism,"he
The A.P. attends every execution, a policy that newspapers around the
"Our staff is half the size it was 3 years ago, and so its just much more
difficult to send somebody," said Jim Witt, executive editor of The Fort
Worth Star-Telegram. "But we know we can depend on The A.P., so I can send
my reporters to something else."
Newspapers sometimes use The A.P.'s reporting rather than their own or
they do not cover the executions at all. What was once a statewide story
has become of strictly local interest.
A few papers, like The Houston Chronicle, still routinely cover executions
in cases from their home counties, but not those from other parts of the
state. Only one paper regularly covers executions no matter which part of
the state the cases come from: The Huntsville Item, a small publication
based near the prison.
This year, the state has put to death 5 inmates in cases from Tarrant
County, which includes Fort Worth. The Star-Telegram covered one, wrote
about 2 other cases in the days before the executions, and on the
remaining 2 did not publish any articles, either its own or The A.P.'s.
"It depends on whether the crime was particularly newsworthy," Mr. Witt
This year, a case from El Paso County resulted in an execution for that
county for the 1st time in 22 years, but rather than send a reporter to
Huntsville, some 650 miles away, The El Paso Times quoted extensively from
Mr. Graczyk's report.
"We actually put in to attend that one, and we were granted a spot, but
when the editors explained the case to me, and the local connection was
minimal, I said it wasn't a compelling enough case," said Chris V. Lopez,
editor of The Times.
He said the expense of traveling to Huntsville was not a major
consideration, but "it has to be a case that has a lot of local impact,"
adding that the paper plans to attend a scheduled execution in a more
Mr. Graczyk, who also writes on a wide range of other topics, developed
his unusual specialty in the mid-1980s, a few years after Texas resumed
executions after a long hiatus. He often covers the crimes, the trials and
the appeals, immersed in details so gruesome it is hard to imagine they
At first there were just a handful of executions each year, but the pace
of capital punishment in Texas stepped up sharply through the next decade.
The state has put 441 inmates to death since 1982, more than the next 6
states combined. That includes 334 since the start of 1997, a period in
which Texas accounted for 41 % of the national total.
"The act is very clinical, almost anticlimactic," Mr. Graczyk said. "When
we get into the chamber here in Texas, the inmate has already been
strapped to the gurney and the needle is already in his arm."
Witnesses are mostly subdued, he said, and while "some are in tears,
outright jubilation or breakdowns are really rare."
They stand on the other side of a barrier of plexiglass and bars, able to
hear the prisoner through speakers. And the only sound regularly heard
during the execution itself, is of all things, snoring. A 3-drug cocktail
puts the inmate to sleep within seconds, while death takes a few minutes.
Victims family members often remark that the killers death seems too
But before the drugs flow, the inmate is allowed to make a last statement,
giving Mr. Graczyk what even he acknowledges are some lasting, eerie
One inmate "sang 'Silent Night,' even though it wasnt anywhere near
Christmas," Mr. Graczyk said. "I can't hear that song without thinking
about it. That one really stuck with me."
(source: New York Times)
Perry: Death Penalty's Working Fine!
A little thing like being shown to have probably executed an innocent man
isn't going to get in the way of continuing to put people to death, if
Texas governor Rick Perry has anything to do with it.
Said Perry yesterday:
Our process works, and I don't see anything out there that would merit
calling for a moratorium on the Texas death penalty. It's fair and
appropriate, and we will continue with it.
Perry was responding to Mark White, who as governor in the '80s was a
staunch death penalty supporter, but said last week that it may be time to
do away with it to ensure that the state did not execute an innocent
White, in turn, was speaking in the context of a fast-growing controversy
over Perry's handling of a state panel that's probing a flawed arson
investigation which may well have led to the execution of an innocent man.
Perry, a Republican, signed off on the 2004 execution of Cameron Todd
Willingham, despite of flaws in the investigation. Perry now has failed to
reappoint several members of the panel that's looking into the case,
triggering allegations that he is trying to stymie the inquiry.
Perry's top opponent for the 2010 GOP gubernatorial nomination, Sen. Kay
Bailey Hutchison, has seized on the issue to slam Perry. But not for
likely executing an innocent man, then trying to obstruct an investigation
into the matter. No, the problem, said Hutchison in a recent statement, is
that Perry might have undermined support for the death penalty:
The only thing Rick Perry's actions have accomplished is giving liberals
an argument to discredit the death penalty. We should never do anything to
create a cloud of controversy over it with actions that look like a