Gov. Perry's Capital Impropriety
Dr. Clarissa Pinkola Ests and I have been posting on a Texas criminal
justice case that has now become an issue of national interest.
It is the now infamous case of Todd Willingham who was executed almost 6
years ago for the 1991 arson related death of his 3 children at his home
in Corsicana, Texas.
The Texas Forensic Science Commission was reviewing the case and hired the
noted fire scientist Craig Beyler to once again investigate the case
The Texas Forensic Science Commission was established in 2005 for the very
purpose of investigating allegations of error and misconduct by forensic
investigators, and the first cases to be investigated by the commission
were those of Willingham and Ernest Ray Willis, another Texas man accused
of a similar crime and sentenced to death.
Beyler completed his investigation in August and in a "scathing report,"
he concluded, according to The New Yorker, that "investigators in the
Willingham case had no scientific basis for claiming that the fire was
arson, ignored evidence that contradicted their theory, had no
comprehension of flashover and fire dynamics, relied on discredited
folklore, and failed to eliminate potential accidental or alternative
causes of the fire."
Other experts and Texas officials dispute the Beyler findings.
2 days before Beyler was to discuss his report with the commission, Perry
abruptly replaced 3 commission members whose terms had expired. The new
chairman, John Bradley, Williamson County's district attorney, cancelled
the meeting, ostensibly "to get up to speed." A total of 4 members of the
commission were replaced by Perry.
Critics suggest that both the firings of the commission members and the
now inevitable delay in the release of the Commission's final
reportprobably until after the upcoming Texas primary gubernatorial
election in which Perry is a candidateare politically motivated.
Perry strongly denies both suggestions and maintains that the execution of
Willingham was appropriate and that Texas did not execute an innocent man.
He calls the controversy "nothing more than propaganda from the anti-death
penalty people across the country."
Numerous judicial, legal, criminal and scientific experts have
investigated this case and expressed contrary opinions.
I am no expert. However, like many Texans, I am puzzled by Perry's recent
actions and pronouncements with respect to this case.
While Willingham's execution was number 320 of 441 killed since Texas
resumed executions in 1982 and while Perry has presided over more than 200
such killings, the issue here, in my opinion, is not about the death
While some claim that Perry is obstructing a legitimate investigation, and
while others claim that Perry has every right and authority to hire and
fire commission members at will, the issue is not about whether he
obstructed an investigation or violated any lawat least not for the
The issue is about the appearance of political impropriety. But most
important, the appearance that Governor Perry doesnt care if a convicted
and executed human being may in fact be innocent. Appearances that the
governor could have so easily prevented or changed.
An Editorial in Perrys (official) hometown newspaper, the Austin
American-Statesman, this past weekend puts this entire fracas in
It starts out with the affirmation that,
Theres no doubt that Gov. Rick Perry has the authority to appoint Texas
Forensic Science Commission members. And theres no doubt that some
members' terms ended recently.
When Perry recently shuffled the board and 2 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.
After revisiting the Willingham case, the replacement of the commission
members and the cancellation of the Beyler meeting, the Statesman notes:
"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."
The Statesman continues, "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."
And, "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." Admitting its
opposition to capital punishment the Statesman reminds us that "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."
The Statesman also adds:
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.
Recalling former Texas Governor Mark White's change of heart on the death
penalty, the Statesman concludes:
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.
I agree; that is all we are asking from Governor Perry, a little
restraint, a little less politics and a little more of an open mind to the
possibility that a horrible, irreversible mistake was made.
(source: Dorian De Wind, The Moderate Voice)