October 13, 2009
AUSTIN — Two of Gov. Rick Perry’s Republican adversaries in the 2010 governor’s race hammered Perry on Tuesday for carrying out a shake-up of a state commission probing a possibly flawed arson investigation that led to the 2004 execution of Cameron Todd Willingham.
U.S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, Perry’s leading opponent in the March 2 Republican primary, accused Perry of “trying to ramrod a covering-up” by removing three members of the Texas Forensic Science Commission two days before a critical meeting.
Houston-area GOP activist Debra Medina, who is also challenging Perry, used even stronger language, saying the state’s longest-serving governor “gutted the panel” and is behaving “like a tyrant” with an “off-with-their-heads attitude.”
But Perry spokeswoman Allison Castle issued a strongly worded rebuttal defending the governor’s actions in the Willingham case. The unemployed Corsicana mechanic was executed in 2004 for setting a house fire that killed his two daughters.
If Perry’s rivals “oppose the death penalty for someone who murdered his three children, beat his wife while she was pregnant with twins in an effort to force an abortion, repeatedly changed his story, who confessed and whose last words were an obscenity laced tirade aimed at his ex wife, and whose conviction was upheld numerous times over the course of more than a decade, including nine times by federal courts then they should just say so,” Castle said in an e-mailed statement.
“Do they think he was innocent? A jury, along with state and federal courts believed he was guilty of murder.”
Nevertheless, the statements from Perry’s opponents implicitly signal their belief that Perry may be vulnerable on the issue, particularly if an inquiry concludes that an innocent man was executed on the governor’ watch. Noted arson expert Craig Beyler of Baltimore, in a report prepared for the commission, said the investigation relied on outmoded concepts and could not sustain a finding of arson.
Perry’s dismissals two days before Beyler was to appear have drawn national media attention and charges from critics that he was attempting to undercut the commission to avoid potentially embarrassing findings.
The governor said he was acting to fill expired terms and dismisses assertions that he was trying to interfere with the commission’s work.
In another facet of the case, Perry has also confronted criticism for not releasing records about his decision-making in rejecting an 11th-hour request from Willingham’s attorney to postpone the execution. Willingham’s lawyer faxed Perry an analysis by Austin-based expert Gerald Hurst, who also challenged the arson investigation.
Defending death penalty
In an interview with Dallas talk show host Mark Davis on WBAP/820 AM, Hutchison described herself as a “steadfast supporter of the death penalty” but added: “I want to make sure that we have every technological advance in evidence, to assure that we are executing a person who is actually guilty, and the right person.
“The fact that this panel was going forward to try to determine if there is now new technical evidence on whether a person is an arsonist or had an accident in a fire is very important,” she said. “And I just think the governor made a mistake in trying to ramrod a covering-up of what might be more evidence for the future.”
Medina, chairwoman of the Wharton County Republican Party, said that while “there are some crimes so heinous the death penalty is the only just punishment, we must protect human life.
“That means suspending the sentence where evidence indicates that there is a shadow of doubt,” she said. “Gov. Perry apparently had the opportunity to do that in this case. He chose not to.”
Medina also assailed Perry for the commission shake-up. “If the governor cared about justice, he’d work hard to ensure that the panel’s work is completed in all due haste, that all the evidence is considered,” she said.
“This constant changing of the guard when he doesn’t like the findings is more evidence that the governor behaves more and more like a tyrant, ‘off with their heads’ when people don’t agree with him,” she said.