Editore"s Note
Tilting at Windmills

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October 1, 2009

WHAT RICK PERRY DOESN'T WANT TO KNOW.... In last month's issue of the New Yorker David Grann considers the case of Cameron Todd Willingham, and makes a very compelling argument that Texas executed an innocent man five years ago.

Texas Gov. Rick Perry (R), who was governor when Willingham was killed by the state, doesn't want to hear exculpatory evidence, and has taken steps to make sure no one else hears it either. (thanks to reader V.S. for the tip)

Gov. Rick Perry replaced the chairman and two members of the state's Forensic Science Commission, two days before the commission was to hear evidence that Texas executed an innocent man. The new chairman canceled the hearing, at which an arson expert was to present a report critical of the arson analysis that led to the conviction of the man, Cameron T. Willingham. Mr. Willingham, above, was executed in 2004 after being convicted of setting a 1991 fire in which his three children died. Governor Perry, who was in office at the time of the execution, has expressed confidence in Mr. Willingham's guilt.

"This is like the Saturday night massacre," said Barry Scheck, co-director of the Innocence Project, which has been working on the case. "It's like Nixon firing Archibald Cox to avoid turning over the Watergate tapes."

When Willingham was convicted, prosecutors relied heavily on an "expert" that testified about the origins of the fire that killed Willingham's daughters. The problem, we now know, is that the "expert" apparently didn't know what he was talking about.

The Forensic Science Commission, created to consider the competence of those who offer forensic testimony, hired Dr. Craig Beyler, an actual arson expert, to consider the evidence and report on his findings. He was scheduled to discuss what he found tomorrow.

Apparently worried about what the facts might show, Perry intervened, got rid of some of the Forensic Science Commission's members in the 11th hour, and ensured that the commission couldn't hold a meeting to discuss the Willingham case.

The meeting with Beyler to evaluate the science has been cancelled -- and hasn't been rescheduled. The evidence that Texas killed an innocent man will wait indefinitely.

For his part, the governor said the fired commission members' terms were nearly complete and his move was "pretty standard business as usual." Perry did not, however, explain why the commissioners had to be fired 48 hours before an important meeting, and why other commission members had their terms renewed but these three had to be replaced immediately.

Steve Benen 1:15 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (33)

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I think Gov. Perry gave us all the evidence we need.

Posted by: RZ on October 1, 2009 at 1:21 PM | PERMALINK

A coward with a guilty mind.

Posted by: Michael Carpet on October 1, 2009 at 1:29 PM | PERMALINK

Haven't read the facts yet, but I do know I wouldn't want Barry Scheck on my case.

Posted by: Bob M on October 1, 2009 at 1:35 PM | PERMALINK

Abstinence-only education works because it does.

Gays are a threat to military cohesion because they are.

Innocent people never get executed because they don't.

Our healthcare system is fine because it is.

The creatures still calling themselves Republicans spend their days with their fingers in their ears, screaming at the top of their lungs.

Posted by: shortstop on October 1, 2009 at 1:47 PM | PERMALINK

Can you say Governor Kay Bailey Hutchison?
The Innocense Project is quite a great organization. They have saved the lives of many people that were wrongly on death row. When Barry Scheck starts making the rounds on Olbermann, Maddow, etc, then they bring in Senator Kay, Perry is toast. He just made the biggest mistake of his life.

Posted by: Patrick on October 1, 2009 at 1:50 PM | PERMALINK

Govenor Perry-a charter member of the head up the ass party=GOP.

Posted by: Gandalf on October 1, 2009 at 1:50 PM | PERMALINK

rick perry is a murderer.

Posted by: mudwall jackson on October 1, 2009 at 1:57 PM | PERMALINK

It's even worse than the article makes it appear. The guy he just appointed and made head of the commission is a politically connect prosecutor from Williamson County (near Austin where I am)). Williamson County is incredibly "tough on crime" Even minor stuff will get you major time if you're prosecuted there.

Posted by: mmc on October 1, 2009 at 1:58 PM | PERMALINK

Can the 'expert' be tried for manslaughter, since his evidence led to the death of an innocent man?

Posted by: Moxo on October 1, 2009 at 1:58 PM | PERMALINK

sweet jesus! this is just great... just great... running from scientific evidence that would suggest that texas justice screwed up and the death penalty was given to an innocent man (as happens over and over and over and over again -- check out the docu-drama "The Exonerated").

The state of Texas has murdered innocent people. Perry has done this.

Posted by: neill on October 1, 2009 at 2:05 PM | PERMALINK

fact of the matter is that junk science was used to convict mr. willingham, and that he was executed for committing a crime that never happened. there was overwhelming evidence that it was junk science, and that evidence was available to the honorable governor. he could have done the moral thing and spared mr. willingham, but the honorable governor decided against that. the term for what the governor did (or didn't do) is depraved indifference.

Posted by: mudwall jackson on October 1, 2009 at 2:05 PM | PERMALINK

gov. goodhair probably considers executing an innocent person every now and then to be the equivalent of a "rounding error."

Posted by: mellowjohn on October 1, 2009 at 2:06 PM | PERMALINK

Now come on people, doesn't precedent count for anything any more? That W fellow got away with being callous about people he had executed and still got elected president. I'm just running for another term as gov here. Cut a man some slack.

Posted by: Rick Nicehair Perry on October 1, 2009 at 2:09 PM | PERMALINK

Sine qua non of cognitive dissonance

Of all the forms of republican cognitive dissonance, I've always found these two contradictory thoughts the most amazing:

1) Big government is bad
2) Giving big government the right to execute people is good.

Posted by: koreyel on October 1, 2009 at 2:12 PM | PERMALINK

Yeah, really, Gov, don't give away your petrified fear of the findings by firing away those who may have brought the truth into the light of day. Typical modern Republican, instead of owning up to their actions and seeking truth above all else, they cower in fear at any inconvenient evidence that could derail their Machiavellian interests.

That's a good point, Moxo, if one is to offer testimony that makes or breaks a conviction in a capital case, there should be accountability. Not sure if the legal definition of manslaughter would fit, but some form of sanction, loss of license or other professional accountability. Likely something somewhere - right or wrong - prevents civil recourse against testimony offered against a plaintiff who was the defendant in the criminal case, but maybe not, or maybe only under certain circumstances, of which this would be an obvious example I'd hope. A civil case for wrongful death seems applicable, but they'd have to go after an estate, the fire inspector in question died in the early nineties, I believe the article said. What a cluster. Moral of the story: don't move to/live in Texas.

Posted by: jsacto on October 1, 2009 at 2:12 PM | PERMALINK

Perry's actions here simply add to the mountain of evidence that Texas justice is often little more than a cruel joke. In any event, the hearing of the Forensic Science Commission would have been superfluous; Mr. Grann's New Yorker article laid out the case very convincingly -- one might even say it was air tight. But a Republican governor concealing or destroying the work of scientists who may be on to some embarrassing facts? Just sounds like (to use Perry's phrase) business as usual.

Posted by: Jim Strain on October 1, 2009 at 2:19 PM | PERMALINK

Perry's press flack tells you all you need to know about this sorry mess: The governor's decision was "business as usual." Given the track record of Texas "justice", I'm sure it was.

Posted by: Platypus on October 1, 2009 at 2:19 PM | PERMALINK

perry isn't even man enough to admit the error. may god have mercy on his soul. may voters have none.

Posted by: mudwall jackson on October 1, 2009 at 2:32 PM | PERMALINK

I feel sure the truth will out!

Posted by: JS on October 1, 2009 at 2:33 PM | PERMALINK

jsacto -- the arson 'experts' were actually just following what they had learned. it's not their fault that Texas justice trains "experts" with common sense folk belief about how fires spread. there was no personal negligence or malice on their part.

the only person you can hold to account for this fiasco is the judge for ignoring good evidence. and good luck with that.

texas judges have probably killed more innocent people than texas' death row inmates.

Posted by: inkadu on October 1, 2009 at 2:43 PM | PERMALINK

If you haven't already, go to The New Yorker site and read the story, which appeared a couple of weeks or so ago.

It is chilling.


Posted by: h on October 1, 2009 at 2:47 PM | PERMALINK

Ahhh yes, the esteemed Guv Goodhair (Molly Ivins, RIP). The man runs from science re: evolution, why wouldn't he run from science to cover his ass? He is a despicable, soul-less, base-pandering, incompetent, dishonest, creepy fuck coming to a GOP Presidential primary near you.

Posted by: ckelly on October 1, 2009 at 3:10 PM | PERMALINK

Having read the article, I don't think it rises to the level of criminal prosecution, although a wrongful death civil action may be appropriate.

That said, IF a prosecutor were to suborn perjury, or a law enforcement official were to commit perjury, with the full knowledge & intent that such action would place an innocent person death row, and that the execution were then carried out, then that person would've committed felony murder...

...Which in most states is a capital crime.

Posted by: Husker Blue on October 1, 2009 at 3:13 PM | PERMALINK

Shortstop, you left out my favorite: The United States doesn't torture because it doesn't.

Posted by: noncarborundum on October 1, 2009 at 3:18 PM | PERMALINK


Shouldn't that read

Posted by: ckelly on October 1, 2009 at 3:22 PM | PERMALINK

Ten bucks says Keith Olbermann is all over this tonight. I can't wait. I am going to the market to get some popcorn now.

God, I might have to go to a job in Dallas next month. I better see what else is available.

Posted by: Patrick on October 1, 2009 at 3:34 PM | PERMALINK

If you haven't read the article about Willingham, you should. It's an amazing piece of work. And it appears pretty certain that Rick Perry did in fact allow an innocent man to be murdered by the State of Texas.

Great country.

Posted by: karen marie on October 1, 2009 at 3:34 PM | PERMALINK

Ah, Texas. The national laboratory for bad government, and executions come hell, high water, or exculpatory evidence.

Posted by: rRk1 on October 1, 2009 at 4:06 PM | PERMALINK

Funny how these assholes can manufacture doubt when it serves their interests (e.g. global warming denial) but also create certainty among the locals that they are bringing justice to the "right" villains. An evil thread runs through their fear mongering. The same thread that brought us George Bush and the Iraq War. Texas = State of Apes, with Oklahoma running neck and neck.

Posted by: lou on October 1, 2009 at 4:07 PM | PERMALINK

The man Perry appointed to lead the panel, John Bradley, is the looniest, most bloodthirsty and far right prosecutor in Texas.

And that's saying something.

Posted by: buggy ding dong on October 1, 2009 at 4:36 PM | PERMALINK

Perry personifies all that is vile within the state of Texas.

Posted by: JW on October 1, 2009 at 5:13 PM | PERMALINK

Then there's vermin like Scalia, who think it doesn't matter anyway if you were wrongly convicted - you know, "finality" and all that crap, and Robots is going along as BushCo's easter egg.

Posted by: delver on October 1, 2009 at 5:58 PM | PERMALINK

"...there was overwhelming evidence that it was junk science, and that evidence was available to the honorable governor..." mudwall jackson @ 2:05 PM.
I fully understand that issuing pardons is a "discretionary" act for governors. What I fail to understand is why ANY governor, faced with exculpatory evidence in a criminal case, and who fails to use that power isn't chargeable under the law; for corruption of justice, if nothing else. After all, how can anyone expect justice to be "blind" when the only time it is, is when there is evidence clearing a convicted criminal and said evidence is ignored.
It would be perfect if other states started refusing the extradition of criminals to Texas, citing cases such as this as the reason. I believe there is something in the Constitution about speedy and fair trials (exact phrase escapes me) and the situation in Texas certainly doesn't seem to be producing fair ones. Using unqualified "experts" to, basically, mislead jurors would definitely not meet the "fair" requirement. Nor would sitting on a report that exposes such doings.
I think the gel Perry uses has soaked into his skull.
Go Hutchison!

Posted by: Doug on October 1, 2009 at 7:55 PM | PERMALINK



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