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Dear Rick Perry: We have not forgotten Todd Willingham and what you did

By , June 15, 2011

Dear Rick Perry: We have not forgotten what you did. Before his execution, Todd Willingham said, “Please don’t ever stop fighting to vindicate me.”

From the LA Times:

Texas Gov. Rick Perry may want to run for president. So let me reintroduce you a former constituent of his, Cameron Todd Willingham

Perry, who may soon announce his presidential bid, oversaw the 2004 execution of Willingham, a father of three convicted for the apparent arson murder of his young daughters. Problem was, the evidence used to prove Willingham set the fire that killed his children was based on shoddy science and obsolete investigation techniques, facts that were brought to Perry’s attention before Willingham’s death. Declaring his innocence to the end, Willingham was executed 12 years after his children’s deaths.

The New Yorker published a lengthy piece in 2009 detailing the whole affair, a depressing portrayal of a government more interested in self-preservation than in serving justice. Most chilling was the Texas justice system’s seeming indifference to condemned killers the moment they land on death row. Here’s a disturbing excerpt:

The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals was known for upholding convictions even when overwhelming exculpatory evidence came to light. In 1997, DNA testing proved that sperm collected from a rape victim did not match Roy Criner, who had been sentenced to ninety-nine years for the crime. Two lower courts recommended that the verdict be overturned, but the Court of Criminal Appeals upheld it, arguing that Criner might have worn a condom or might not have ejaculated. Sharon Keller, who is now the presiding judge on the court, stated in a majority opinion, “The new evidence does not establish innocence.” In 2000, George W. Bush pardoned Criner. (Keller was recently charged with judicial misconduct, for refusing to keep open past five o’clock a clerk’s office in order to allow a last-minute petition from a man who was executed later that night.)

On October 31, 1997, the Court of Criminal Appeals denied Willingham’s writ.

Another one:

Without having visited the fire scene, [fire investigator Dr. Gerald Hurstor] says, it was impossible to pinpoint the cause of the blaze. But, based on the evidence, he had little doubt that it was an accidental fire — one caused most likely by the space heater or faulty electrical wiring. It explained why there had never been a motive for the crime. Hurst concluded that there was no evidence of arson, and that a man who had already lost his three children and spent twelve years in jail was about to be executed based on “junk science.” Hurst wrote his report in such a rush that he didn’t pause to fix the typos….

Hurst’s findings had helped to exonerate more than ten people. Hurst even reviewed the scientific evidence against Willingham’s friend Ernest Willis, who had been on death row for the strikingly similar arson charge. Hurst says, “It was like I was looking at the same case. Just change the names.” In his report on the Willis case, Hurst concluded that not “a single item of physical evidence . . . supports a finding of arson.” A second fire expert hired by Ori White, the new district attorney in Willis’s district, concurred. After seventeen years on death row, Willis was set free. “I don’t turn killers loose,” White said at the time. “If Willis was guilty, I’d be retrying him right now. And I’d use Hurst as my witness. He’s a brilliant scientist.” White noted how close the system had come to murdering an innocent man. “He did not get executed, and I thank God for that,” he said.On February 13th, four days before Willingham was scheduled to be executed, he got a call from Reaves, his attorney. Reaves told him that the fifteen members of the Board of Pardons and Paroles, which reviews an application for clemency and had been sent Hurst’s report, had made their decision.

“What is it?” Willingham asked.

“I’m sorry,” Reaves said. “They denied your petition.”

Perry denied Willingham a stay of execution, an action that may have been forgivable in retrospect had the governor expressed a sincere desire to review the facts of the case given the overwhelming post-execution evidence that Texas made an irreversible mistake. On the contrary, Perry frustrated an investigation by the Texas Forensic Science Commission, replacing three of its members days before the board was set to discuss a report that cast serious doubt on the evidence used to send Willingham to the lethal injection gurney. The meeting was canceled.

The Times wrote two editorialsexpressing dismay Willingham’s execution and Perry’s obstruction of the investigation. Still, the case faded from the national discussion and Perry went on in 2010 to win his third full term as governor.

Texas executes far more people than any other state, so it’s understandable that Lone Star State Republicans would give their governor a pass. But a Perry candidacy might prod conservatives in less execution-friendly states (such as, say, New Hampshire, which last knotted a noose in 1939) to answer for his apparent indifference to profound injustice.

Texas let Perry off the hook; the rest of the nation may not be so forgiving.


8 Responses to “Dear Rick Perry: We have not forgotten Todd Willingham and what you did”

  1. scott says:

    Weather or not the death penalty is right or wrong is a different matter all together. This man seems far away from innocent when you consider all thing involved including the venomous and horrific last words to his ex-wife. Yeah you guys don’t want to debate Rick Perry on this just as no one else will.

  2. Charlie P says:

    Scott, you need to finish grade school, the word is ‘whether’, not ‘Weather’. Duh! I would love to debate Rick Perry on this matter! He knows the commission he appointed has found that there was no evidence the fire was the result of arson. Rather than doing the right thing, he does nothing and murders an innocent man. He then fires three members of the committee he appointed and replaced them with political hacks. Like you, he tries to somehow make the fact he cursed his ex-wife for telling a terrible lie as somehow justifying this guy being killed when he was guilty of nothing. Perry is the one with blood on his hands, not Willingham.

  3. lauren says:

    After viewing the frontline story and seeing first hand gov perry’s
    reaction, as a republican I still would not vote for him even
    though i found Todd to be a bastard and a coward.Governer Perry is a murderer!!!!!

  4. Jillian Cooke says:

    “seems far away from innocent” is exactly the issue at hand. How can we kill someone for what they seem to be? And who determines how someone seems to be? What I think a good parent is or a good person is can be very different from someone else. Tod Willingham seemed poor, uneducated & a mean person. Did he seem to be a killer? I wonder looking at the photos of their tattered little house how different this story would of been if that house was made of brick & was surrounded by a manicured yard & if the mother would of been shopping at Macy’s & not a thrift store & if the father had an MBA and no tattoos. Wonder is that would of seemed more fitting of the word accident. The problem with judgement is nobody is immune to it. This guy was judged by the neighbors, the cops, the fire chief & even his wife. He seemed to be a monster. He seemed to be someone that was capable of killing his children. “Seemed” has no place in a justice system as flawed as the one we so blindly uphold. We can not sit in judgement of another man’s life until we are free of judgement our self. God forgive Texas & elect anyone other than Perry.

  5. Trinnie says:

    What a desperately sad story. A man loses his children to a fire 2 days before Christmas is then convicted of killing them spends 12 years on death row labelled a babykiller and is then executed.. Without a shred of any real evidence to prove that he was responsible for their deaths or any motive to kill. RIP Todd.

  6. Jennifer says:

    Scott, I find your comment to be of the same umimaginative and irrelevant idiocy as Perry’s. Not excusing Willingham’s past behaviour but we all make mistakes. He was at least honest and decent enough to own up to them which is more anyone can say for a certain Mr Perry isn’t it? The point is he was ultimately executed for arson, not for anything else, so tn judge him on other past misdemeanours to which be had already acknowledged and aologised for in any event does not answer the question as to whether or not he was guilty of the crime to
    which he would be condemned. With regard to his outburst at his wife, if he was angry with her for lying to the Authorities, could you honestly say you would not have been angry after spending 12 years of your life on DR not to mention losing all your children in a fire and
    being condemned by the state?! I don’t agree that he was a coward either. He opted to forgo the chance to acquire a life sentence. That doesn’t sound like an unrepentant killer to be but a man who wanted to do the right thing regardless of the consequences. Ultimately, he should never have been found guilty never mind sentenced to death. The basic test of guilt is “beyond reasonable doubt” – clearly with such faulty evidence, that was not the case! And, how on earth could such evidence be even deemed admissible?! Rick Perry should hang his
    head in shame – no price he can ever pay will atone for this. RIP Todd and may his family one day find peace x

  7. Jean Brown says:

    I looked at all the evidence I could find. My conclusion…Cameron Todd Willingham was guilty as sin of the arson-murder of his 3 children and was rightfully executed. He even confessed to his ex-wife Stacy Kuykendall that he committed the murders of the 3 kids; right before his execution. He admitted to his ex-wife that he murdered the children. She is the mother of the 3 murdered children. Also, all accidental causes of the fire were eliminated; which leaves only arson as the cause of the fire. Also, the behavior of this murderer…he refused to go in the house and rescue his children yet he was concerned about his car being burnt by the fire…yet wasn’t concerned about his children…even laughing after the fire…innocent?…not by a long shot. He was guilty as sin of murdering these 3 innocent children…as his ex-wife said he was.

  8. Jean Brown says:

    And I am FOR the death penalty for child killers. I used to be against the death penalty when I was a teenager because I felt sorry for these mad-dog murderers…I forgot about the innocent victims of these criminals. When I looked at what these criminals did to their victims then I changed my mind and became for the death penalty for murderers. I started feeling sorry for the victims; and no longer for the mad-dog murderers.

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