Uphold the Texas governor's office and rein in rhetoric
There's no doubt that Gov. Rick Perry has the authority to appoint Texas
Forensic Science Commission members. And there's no doubt that some
members' terms ended recently.
When Perry recently shuffled the board and two days before a crucial
meeting about a controversial execution put a tough-on-crime prosecutor
in charge of the panel, we supported his right to do so. And in the face
of cries of protest, we counseled patience and expressed confidence the
commission would do the right thing.
Now we wish Perry would have joined in that patience. His actions and
intemperate comments in the intervening weeks make it look like everything
the critics feared is true.
The now-infamous background: Cameron Todd Willingham was executed in 2004
for a 1991 arson at his Corsicana home in which his 3 children died. The
Forensic Science Commission last year hired fire expert Craig Beyler to
review the case.
Beyler's August report said no investigator could have determined the
house fire resulted from accelerant-aided arson. 2 days before Beyler was
to discuss his report with the commission, Perry replaced commission
members whose terms had expired. The meeting was canceled to allow new
Chairman John Bradley, Williamson County's district attorney, to get up to
OK. A little suspicious. But OK. We are or were willing to await results
and not get caught up in the politics of the moment.
We now wish our governor would have taken the same approach instead of
proclaiming Willingham a "monster," an allegation that, as far as we know,
does not carry the death penalty in Texas.
"I would suggest to you that if you look at the bulk of Mr. Beyler's
remarks over the last days and weeks, you will see a very politically
driven agenda," Perry told The Dallas Morning News during a visit to a
Richardson high school.
Maybe, but all we see is a scientist talking science. And all we see from
Perry is a politician talking politics, something we find unattractive
amid something as serious as new doubts about a man put to death by the
state of Texas.
Perry, in the face of unavoidably important new input about the case,
either reacted politically or, perhaps worse, evidenced an inability or
unwillingness to think his way through the new material.
Everything about the Willingham case reminds us that the death penalty
always has been flawed by the fact that it is inflicted based on a
standard below what it should be for an irreversible punishment.
As in all criminal cases, to get a capital murder conviction, jurors must
be sure the defendant is guilty beyond a reasonable doubt, not beyond all
doubt, but beyond a reasonable doubt.
Reasonable doubt is a reasonable standard and perhaps all we can ask from
jurors because there might never be any convictions if prosecutors had to
prove guilt beyond all doubt.
But the Willingham case, as well as the many cases in which convictions
are tossed out long after trial, reminds us that doubt can be a moving
target. And that's why this newspaper long has opposed capital punishment.
In many cases, new science has brought new doubt into convictions. DNA
evidence not available at trial has led to post-conviction exonerations.
It is a remedy not available to the executed.
Perry's strident support of the Willingham execution in addition to how
he is trying to choreograph the investigation unintentionally is serving
as fodder for death penalty foes. This episode adds to the discredit and
embarrassment the death penalty long has brought upon Texas.
Instead of branding Willingham a "monster," candidate Perry would have
been better off acting as Gov. Perry and sticking with more measured
comments about how the justice system has acted, how he is aware of the
new doubts, how he awaits a full vetting of the report but remains
convinced Willingham was guilty as charged.
Perhaps because it is campaign season, Perry doesn't seem to have it in
him to do anything other than act and react as a candidate. It is
unattractive and invites discredit upon Texas and its death penalty.
Texas governors and gubernatorial candidates, dealing with polls showing
popular support for the death penalty, long have had no choice but to
In his unsuccessful 1990 bid to regain the job he had from 1983-1986,
Democrat Mark White ran a TV ad in which he strolled among portraits of
condemned inmates executed while he was governor.
"As governor, I made sure they received the ultimate punishment death,"
Almost 20 years later, White has changed his tune.
"We're very tough on crime in Texas," he recently told The Dallas Morning
News. "But as tough as old Mark was on crime and for the death penalty,
when I review it today, I have very, very serious reservations about
trusting our system of government making the right decision every time and
not executing an innocent person."
White's change of heart is admirable, and, as he noted, easy for a
non-candidate to discuss.
Indeed, it would take more courage for someone else perhaps an incumbent
governor to do something as relatively minor as to hold his tongue until
legitimate doubts about an execution are fully vetted.
(source: Editorial, Austin American-Statesman)
Ex-governors death penalty skepticism a welcome step
Former Texas Gov. Mark White did last week what he could never have done
during his 2 campaigns for state attorney general and three bids for the
governors office. He said it is time for Texas to rethink the use of
capital punishment and replace the death penalty with life in prison.
You see, no one can run a successful statewide campaign in Texas the
death penalty capital of the country without being for capital
punishment. Just ask any of the candidates already running for governor in
next years election. They wouldn't dare come out against the ultimate
Even the late Ann Richards, a compassionate soul indeed, felt compelled to
talk tough like the good ol boys and declare her stand in favor of this
When White ran his 3rd race for governor, in 1990, facing Richards in the
Democratic primary, he actually bragged about the people who were executed
on his watch.
19 people were put to death by the state while he was governor, between
1983 and 1987. During an interview on National Public Radio last week, he
was reminded of the commercial he ran in that race, which Richards
Melissa Block, host of All Things Considered, began the conversation by
saying, "I'm going to play for you part of a campaign ad from back in 1990
when you ran again. You lost in the Democratic primary, and the ad shows
you walking along the portraits of people who were executed while you were
governor. Let's listen."
The sound bite from the ad has White saying, "These hardened criminals
will never again murder, rape or deal drugs. As governor, I made sure they
received the ultimate punishment: death. And Texas is a safer place for
White's change of heart last week, coming after national news coverage
about the 2004 execution of a man who might have been innocent, was
heralded by death penalty opponents, including Amnesty International USA.
"The evolution of Governor White's views on the death penalty in Texas is
welcomed news, and it mirrors the change that is taking place nationwide,"
the human rights organization said in a statement. "As advances in DNA and
forensic science have revealed the extent to which our criminal justice
system is prone to error, judges, jurors, the public and even some
politicians, have begun to question the wisdom of resorting to capital
punishment. Those who once supported the death penalty are now
significantly less sure."
With the growing number of exonerations of convicted people in Texas 2
others from Dallas County announced last week one can't help but wonder,
"How many innocent people have been put to death for a crime they did not
The Texas case getting a lot of scrutiny now partly because Gov. Rick
Perry overreacted to a state commissions investigation of it is that of
Cameron Todd Willingham, convicted of killing his 3 young daughters in a
fire. He was executed 5 years ago.
(source: Editorial, Fort Worth Star-Telegram)
Death penalty demonstrators march at State Capitol
Hundreds rallied Saturday afternoon at the State Capitol as part of the
10th annual March to Abolish the Death Penalty. They came certain an
innocent man was executed and called for an end to the death penalty.
The protesters drew attention to the controversial case of Cameron Todd
Willingham. He was tried, convicted and in 2004 executed for setting a
fire to his house, killing his 3 young daughters. Despite not having a
clear motive, investigators accused him of arson. But a new report,
commissioned by the Texas Forensic Science Commission, says the expert
evidence was wrong.
Elizabeth Gilbert, a playwright and Willinghams former pen pal, is
convinced of his innocence and was instrumental in helping his family find
a fire investigator to examine his case. She believes an innocent man was
put to death.
"We executed a person who didn't commit a crime," she said. "I am hoping
to bring attention that if 1 person is executed, thats more than enough."
Governor Perry has come under fire for replacing several members of a
state commission just days before it was to hear a report on the science
used to convict Willingham of arson. He has dismissed the criticism as
anti-death penalty rhetoric. He says the panel will move forward with the
investigation and maintains Willingham was guilty.
"Willingham was a monster," said the Governor. "This was a guy who
murdered hi s 3 children, who tried to beat his wife into an abortion so
that he wouldn't have those kids. Person after person has stood up and
testified to facts of this case that, quite frankly, you all aren't
There were counter-demonstrators at the rally.
Willingham's mother, Eugenia, had been scheduled to speak at the rally but
organizers said lawyers had advised her not to attend. In a written
statement handed out by organizers, she wrote: "At this time, my primary
concern is that the Texas Forensic Commission be given the opportunity to
continue the investigation into Todd's wrongful death." She wrote about
receiving letters of support from death row inmates, saying her son's
execution has caused appeals courts to take a closer look at their cases.
This won't bring Todd back, but I take comfort in knowing that others may
be freed because of him."
(source: TXCN News)
Hundreds gather to march against the death penalty—-Hundreds united
downtown to march against capital punishment.
Cameron Todd Willingham was executed for starting the 1991 fire that
killed his 3 children.
Elizabeth Gilbert befriended Willingham while he was on death row and has
been leading the effort to have the case reexamined.
Gilbert joined hundreds at the 10th annual March to Abolish the Death
Penalty in Downtown Austin Saturday.
"I'm hoping more people become aware of the problems with the death
penalty. That even if one person is executed who's innocent that's one too
many," Gilbert said.
Earlier this month, while defending his shake up of the Texas Forensic
Science Commission, Gov. Rick Perry said Willingham's murder convictions
were upheld several times before his 2004 execution.
"The facts of this case show that this was a heinous individual who
murdered his kids," Gov. Perry said.
Gilbert said the governor is trying to distract the public from the
possibility that Texas executed an innocent man.
"The experts have stated it was not arson. The fire was not deliberately
set, therefore the prosecution had no case, and he should not have been
arrested," Gilbert said.
Ron Keine also attended Saturday's march. He was convicted of murder and
sentenced to New Mexico's death row for a crime he did not commit.
Keine also believes Perry is trying to burry the evidence about the
Saturday was the 10th annual March to Abolish the Death Penalty.
"He can't do this the world is looking at this, and he is putting a blight
on Texas," Keine said.
Walter Reed's son Rodney is currently on death row, he took part in the
march to send the message that the death penalty needs to be stopped.
"I just hope something comes out of it. That's what we're all here for to
make something happen," Reed said.
Gilbert said there is one way to make sure an innocent person is not put
"The only way were going to eliminate it is by abolishing the death
penalty, and then if you are innocent you won't be put to death like
Todd," Gilbert said.
Protesters march against death penalty
A crowd of anti-death penalty protestors, fueled by the controversy over
the 2004 execution of Cameron Todd Willingham and changes to the Texas
Forensic Science Commission that is looking into the case, gathered at the
steps of the Capitol on Saturday for the 10th annual March to Abolish the
Dozens of protesters marched down South Congress Avenue and recited chants
for an end to capital punishment and declared that Gov. Rick Perry was
guilty of homicide. The goal, said Scott Cobb, president of the Texas
Moratorium Network, was to make Perry admit to Willingham's innocence and
to end the death penalty, which several speakers called corrupt, racist
and biased against the poor.
Willingham was convicted of the murder of his 3 young daughters by setting
fire to his Corsicana home in 1991. Recent investigations have questioned
the charge of arson.
"We're certainly convinced now after a review by expert scientific
investigators that there is no evidence of arson," Cobb said.
Joining the protesters were exonerated ex-death row inmates Curtis
McCarthy, Ron Keine and Shujaa Graham. Corey Session, brother of Timothy
Cole, a man who died in a Texas prison in 1999, spoke as well. Cole's
posthumous exoneration has led to the creation of the Timothy Cole
Advisory Panel on Wrongful Convictions, which held its 1st meeting Friday.
Session said he believed Willingham would be exonerated if his case were
heard by an advisory panel.
Willingham's appellate attorney, Walter Reaves, and Willingham's pen pal
and frequent death row visitor, Elizabeth Gilbert, spoke at the event.
Gilbert, who said she has 3 binders full of letters from Willingham, said
that after looking into his case, shes convinced of his innocence.
"Todd was a very caring person," said Gilbert, who began corresponding
with and visiting Willingham in 1999 after getting his information at an
anti-death penalty demonstration in Philadelphia. "He was a considerate,
polite, funny, smart person. He was a real human being."
Eugenia Willingham, mother of Willingham, originally was scheduled speak
but decided not to. She said she canceled at the last minute in part
because she was tired and the drive from her home in Ardmore, Okla., was
long. She also said she didnt want to be a distraction from the focus on
her son's case.
However, Willingham said she also isn't entirely against the death
"I feel there probably should be a death penalty," she said. "But I feel
like the system should be reformed in a way so that innocent people aren't
executed. I feel like there are too many people on death row that are
Although there had been speculation that the case against Willingham was
flawed, much of the national attention on Willingham came after Perry's
decision to not reappoint 4 state forensic panelists while they were
investigating the case. Perry said they were replaced because their terms
Craig Beyler, a Maryland-based arson expert who had been hired by the
Forensic Science Commission, has spoken out against Perry's action and, in
his report, questioned the finding of arson.
Perry responded to Beyler's criticism by calling Willingham a "monster"
and saying Beyler is politically motivated. Beyler has denied those
Perry spokesman Allison Castle said Perry stands by his support for the
death penalty. Castle noted that Willingham's conviction was upheld by 9
courts and the death penalty has been upheld as a punishment by the U.S.
(source: San Antonio Express-News)
Inside the case at the center of Texas' death penalty dispute
The call came in at midmorning on a chilly Monday, 2 days before Christmas
in 1991. Firefighter Ron Franks could see a dark column of smoke from 6
When he arrived, smoke and flames were rolling out of the windows and
front door of the half-century-old frame house at 1213 W. 11th St. A
shirtless man was outside.
"My babies are in there," he told Franks.
Amber, the 2-year-old, was given CPR and rushed to the hospital, where she
was pronounced dead. The lifeless bodies of the 1-year-old twins Karmon
Diane and Kameron Marie were recovered from a bedroom.
By any measure, the deaths of the three children were a tragedy that
gripped the entire town. But the next 2 weeks produced yet another
dimension that seemed incomprehensible: Cameron Todd Willingham, the
anguished father in the front yard, was accused of setting the fire and
killing his kids.
The following August, Willingham was convicted and sentenced to death.
After nine state and federal courts rejected his appeals, he was executed
by lethal injection on Feb. 17, 2004, professing his innocence in a final
A dark chapter
For many of Corsicanas 25,000 residents, the execution ended a dark
chapter one that began unfolding the same year that American troops were
fighting the 1st Persian Gulf War and Russians were celebrating the end of
But the case of Cameron Todd Willingham has returned in this former
boomtown 50 miles southeast of Dallas.
9 fire experts have challenged the arson investigation that was
fundamental to the state's case against Willingham, raising the
possibility that the fire may have started accidentally. The renewed
scrutiny has received national news coverage, much of it centering on Gov.
Rick Perry, who denied Willinghams late-hour bid for a postponement.
Perry, the state's longest-serving governor, has come under fire for
replacing 3 members of the Texas Forensic Science Commission just as it
was preparing to review fire expert Craig Beyler's report criticizing the
arson investigation. Perry's critics accused the Republican governor of
orchestrating the shake-up to derail the inquiry, but Perry has vigorously
defended his actions, depicting Willingham as "a monster."
A troubled history
The debate has also produced conflicting images of Willingham. Those who
share Perry's view feel that justice was served, describing Willingham as
a sociopath who poured accelerant on the floor of the house, who felt the
children hindered his lifestyle, who beat his wife in an unsuccessful
attempt to cause a miscarriage.
One witness recalled that Willingham bragged about the time he and a half
brother stole a dog, beat it in the head with a stick and ran over it with
a car, although Willingham later told a friend he didn't harm the animal.
"I believe he was guilty," his ex-wife said Saturday night. Stacy
Kuykendall, who now goes by her maiden name, confirmed earlier reports
that Willingham told her before his execution that he had set fire to the
house and killed the children because he knew that she was going to leave
(source: Fort Worth Star-Telegram)