October 23, 2009
The execution of Cameron Todd Willingham
He died in Texas’ death chamber in 2001, even though the governor was aware of exculpatory evidence and is now apparently working to keep the truth from coming out.
Even in Texas, where the death penalty is embraced with fervor, the revelation that the governor permitted an execution to proceed in 2001 despite abundant evidence that the prosecution was based on seriously flawed scientific methods — well, that might not be helpful to his reelection chances. Not during a tough campaign.
So Gov. Rick Perry’s sudden decision to reconfigure the Texas Forensic Science Commission looks highly suspicious. Two days before the commission was scheduled to hear testimony from an arson expert whose scathing report gave every reason to believe Texas had wrongly convicted Cameron Todd Willingham of setting the fire that killed his three children, Perry replaced the chairman and two other members. Apparently he remembered that their terms had expired in August. The pesky hearing was canceled. It has not been rescheduled.
The report by arson expert Craig Beyler — whose findings corroborated those of at least one other expert — is damning. Beyler concluded that the arson investigators in the Willingham case proceeded on mistaken assumptions, employed outdated methods and mixed courtroom testimony with mystical balderdash. No one should be executed because an investigator tells a jury that “the fire tells the story; I am just the interpreter.”
If Perry didn’t know about the problems with the prosecution, he should have. A report challenging the arson investigators’ methodology landed on his desk before Willingham’s execution. Now it’s unclear how the commission will proceed. Its course, however, was set by the Texas Legislature, which established the board to “investigate any allegation of professional negligence or misconduct that affects the integrity of results and make all completed investigation reports, and subsequent civil or criminal proceedings, available to the public.” We’ll be waiting for a completed investigation and a public report.
Perry, who in recent days has called Willingham a “monster” who deserved to die and Beyler’s report “propaganda,” has had the nerve to paint himself as the victim of a politically motivated attempt to derail his reelection campaign. But he’s wrong. His motives are being challenged because an innocent man may have been executed. Until Perry supports the commission’s efforts and allows science to determine the truth, the likelihood remains that the real victim was Willingham.