Editore"s Note
Tilting at Windmills

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October 13, 2009

THE LENGTHS RICK PERRY WILL GO.... As John Cole noted this morning, it's a story that "reads like a Grisham novel -- allegations of murder and arson, the execution of an innocent man, corrupt politicos."

The story is the ongoing scandal in Texas. The state, by all appearances, executed an innocent man five years ago when it put Cameron Todd Willingham to death. When Willingham was convicted, prosecutors relied heavily on an "expert" that testified about the origins of a 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 Texas 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 on Oct. 2.

But Texas Gov. Rick Perry (R), who was governor when the state killed Willingham, was apparently afraid of what the truth might show. In the 11th hour, Perry fired some of the Forensic Science Commission's members, ensuring that the panel couldn't hold a meeting to discuss the case.

Publius explained this morning that Perry is still at it.

He's now removed a fourth member of the Texas commission responsible for investigating whether Texas (and Perry) executed an innocent man. It's whitewashing at its worst. [...]

What's amazing is not so much that Perry replaced the panel members, but that he felt secure enough to be so brazenly corrupt about it.... [H]is motive is fairly clear. Perry contributed to the execution of an innocent person. And the formal recognition that Texas executed an innocent man would trigger a massive political earthquake -- one that would clarify to an inattentive public the utter barbarity and immorality of Texas's criminal justice system.

So yes, I can understand Perry's motives. But it doesn't change the fact that he is acting in a profoundly immoral way. The whole thing reminds me of a banana republic dictator clumsily covering up his crimes.

The governor's office is also reportedly leaning on officials, hoping to dictate the direction of the investigation.

It's a genuine disgrace and an embarrassment to the country.

Steve Benen 10:45 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (38)

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i like rick perry for herod or pilate and willingham for jeebus next spring in our equinox/resurrection festivals...

Posted by: neill on October 13, 2009 at 10:52 AM | PERMALINK

How is it an embarrassment? In order to be embarrased, the "country" (that is the majority of its citizens) would have to feel shame at an innocent person being killed officially by the state. Since killing inocent persons is an integral part of our militarized foreing policy, our national health practices, and you-name-it, what's the big deal? Egg, meet omelette.

Posted by: Greg Worley on October 13, 2009 at 10:53 AM | PERMALINK

It is with complete contempt that I perceive this article.

This is the United States of America! It is better that 5 innocent men be executed than 1 guilty man go free! At least, unless the guilty man is a rich white man.

Remember, we Republicans are the 'Law & Order' party. WTF does justice have to do with it!

Posted by: RepubicanPointOfView on October 13, 2009 at 10:56 AM | PERMALINK

"Perry contributed to the execution of an innocent person. And the formal recognition that Texas executed an innocent man would trigger a massive political earthquake"

Really, in Texas?

Posted by: SaintZak on October 13, 2009 at 10:59 AM | PERMALINK

Besides that, if it is officially determined that the guy was innocent, you bleeding hearts would probably want his family to receive financial compensation. We need to preserve our fiscal resources for use where they can do the most good; providing funding for corporate needs.

Posted by: RepublicanPointOfView on October 13, 2009 at 10:59 AM | PERMALINK

several people have already pointed this out in various ways: the reason he can act so brazenly is that the texas political culture is rightwing thugist.

Posted by: howard on October 13, 2009 at 11:00 AM | PERMALINK

But wait there's MORE

Gov. Rick Perry's refusal to release documents he reviewed in the hours before the Cameron Todd Willingham execution is the latest fight he's waged over records kept in his office.

Many believe he is the most secretive modern-day governor Texas has seen.

All in the name of security post 9/11 9/11 9/11 9/11 baby. Sounds a lot like another former Guv of Texas don't it? GOP Presidential material.

Posted by: Bobo teh Clown on October 13, 2009 at 11:01 AM | PERMALINK

The curious thing, to me, is the importance Perry places on the official record, when the unofficial record is clear and unmistakeable. It's rather like George W. Bush insisting that no one could prove he was a deserter during the Vietnam War when everyone knew he was. There were plenty more examples from the Bush administration. Why do neocons place such importance on the official record?

Posted by: Thaumaturgist on October 13, 2009 at 11:03 AM | PERMALINK

Our eventually discovering that an innocent man was executed is proof that the justice system and the death penalty work.

Posted by: Myke K on October 13, 2009 at 11:06 AM | PERMALINK

Republican Motto 2009

We're against government death panels, except when we're for them.

Posted by: about time on October 13, 2009 at 11:14 AM | PERMALINK

hm. the United States has a department of justice. it has investigators. they could be sent to Texas.

anyone? Bueller?

Posted by: zeitgeist on October 13, 2009 at 11:15 AM | PERMALINK

Why do neocons place such importance on the official record?

It's not just neocons, it's American political culture generally. A specific, easily understood event can bring down a politician while a massive policy blunder doesn't, even if the latter is more significant. Why? Well, the specific thing (blow job, involvement with hookers) can be used in an attack ad, or as an ad hominem attack during policy fights, and even the dumbest rube out there can understand it. Policy failures are only understood by the wonks.

If Perry executed a provably innocent man, it's really damaging, even in Texas. OTOH shenanigans with board member appointments is just part of the daily political grifting (yawn).

Posted by: jimBOB on October 13, 2009 at 11:15 AM | PERMALINK

I've lived in Texas 20 years, and there is indeed something of a frontier mentality. People don't have a problem with harsh penalties, but they do expect them to be administered in a just, fair and honorable (if you can call the State putting people to death honorable) way. This cover-up stinks, even to the casual observer. The Houston Chronicle is doing a good job covering it. Based on the publicity and the many conscientious people in and out of State government, I'm hopeful the whole truth will out.

Posted by: FC on October 13, 2009 at 11:16 AM | PERMALINK

-and the obvious question is: Will this story surface on the MSM? I mean, it's 'perfect' for the TeeVee. . .

Posted by: DAY on October 13, 2009 at 11:16 AM | PERMALINK

I'm very discouraged in the lack of interest this has generated here in Texas. Unfortunately, things have deteriorated so that this is just commonplace...the Houston Chronicle ran a story in Sunday's paper and I certainly hope this picks up some steam in the days ahead. I'm hopeful anyway although the odds seem against it going anywhere.

Also another disgrace for us, yesterday's story on NPR on obvious discrimination by the USDA concerning farm loans to Latino/Hispanic farmers and ranchers:

And it's only Tuesday folks! What a week it's beginning to be....

Posted by: whichwitch on October 13, 2009 at 11:17 AM | PERMALINK

FC, do you think I'm being overly cynical by thinking most Texans are not concerned about this? Maybe I've grown so tired of so many shenanigans being pulled over on us that I'm not surprised if this turns out to be another. Sure hope I'm wrong.

Posted by: whichwitch on October 13, 2009 at 11:26 AM | PERMALINK

Capital capo

The sort of behavior you'd expect from a Mafioso.

Posted by: koreyel on October 13, 2009 at 11:30 AM | PERMALINK

The only way Perry will stop behaving like this is if enough Republicans tell him it's hurting the party. But none of them ever will.
So it's up to the voters in Texas to recognize that the GOP in their state is not concerned with justice, or upholding the law, and vote them out. But how many of them will ever do that either?

Posted by: PaulW on October 13, 2009 at 11:40 AM | PERMALINK

@ Day - They're going to make a 48hrs mystery out of it ..sometime.....

Posted by: John R on October 13, 2009 at 11:40 AM | PERMALINK

As with all things, if a Democrat was involved, this would be plastered everywhere, 24/7.

This is but the latest example, if a particularly damning one.

MSM: crickets chirping.

Posted by: terraformer on October 13, 2009 at 11:40 AM | PERMALINK

whichwitch - I work in the legal community. For lawyers, even very conservative ones politically, these events are simply beyond the pale. The very foundation of the system itself is being undermined. Corruption in government is a fact of life. Power is always to some degree abused. But our legal system is supposed to check the worst of the abuses, and give recourse, however imperfectly. I think what happened here has gone beyond personal failings, which people will tolerate, into the realm of systemic failure, which threatens everyone.

Posted by: FC on October 13, 2009 at 11:42 AM | PERMALINK

I always find it amusing how conservatives - who distrust government and are always saying that any government employee is incompetent to do anything - are always completely convinced that every death sentence is totally right and the government never ever comes close to getting it wrong in a trial.

Just taking the laws of probability, given the number of prisoners Texas kills every year, Willingham is hardly the only innocent victim of this government of the criminal class, by the criminal class and for the criminal class, in a state founded by crooks, bank robbers, back alley assassins, drunks and cashiered army officers - all one step ahead of justice themselves when they arrived. Perry's just the latest criminal who's stuck with covering the evidence of his crimes.

Posted by: TCinLA on October 13, 2009 at 11:42 AM | PERMALINK

It's a genuine disgrace and an embarrassment to the country.

Only if you consider Texas to be a part of this country. Which I don't. The sooner they secede, the better.

Posted by: Lifelong Dem on October 13, 2009 at 11:45 AM | PERMALINK

What do you expect? Perry is a Christian and a Republican.

Posted by: John C on October 13, 2009 at 11:46 AM | PERMALINK

"It's a genuine disgrace and an embarrassment to the country."

Try being left of center and having to live in Texas. At least I live in Austin....

It's embarrassing that the state is proud of our stupidity. Worse yet, we get to choose between Kay Bailey Hutchinson and Rick Perry (the D's aren't putting up much of a fight at this point in time)! Oh boy!

Posted by: Gary K on October 13, 2009 at 11:47 AM | PERMALINK

What do you expect? Perry is a Christian and a Republican.

...and neither respect the rule of law or want integrity in the justice system. Good point.

Posted by: shortstop on October 13, 2009 at 11:50 AM | PERMALINK

So the guy was probably innocent. He was still sort of a low life. If he was rich he would have hired a decent attorney and gotten off. So where's the problem? The Texas justice system operated exactly the way it's intended to.

Posted by: J. Frank Parnell on October 13, 2009 at 12:03 PM | PERMALINK

Yet another reason for Bush to gin up the "war on terra" -- if the Justice Department now aggressively goes after political thugs like Rick Perry and there's a terrorist attack, the hysterical right gets to scream: "Obama pursued partisan payback instead of protecting the country! Impeach him!" The "terrorist threat" is useful for so many things, don'tcha know...

Posted by: dalloway on October 13, 2009 at 12:08 PM | PERMALINK

"The whole thing reminds me of a banana republic dictator clumsily covering up his crimes."

Three words: "Saturday Night Massacre"

It happens in this country, but back then you had a media that gave a shit about justice and the rule of law.

Where have you gone, Molly Ivins?

Posted by: 2Manchu on October 13, 2009 at 12:26 PM | PERMALINK

Bobo teh Clown said what I was planning to say. To repeat, Perry knew before he signed the death warrant that the guy was convicted under false pretenses. He is now trying to prevent the release of those documents that show it. In other words, things back at the ranch are still the same as they've been since Bush and Rove stole the election from Richards.

Posted by: Texas Aggie on October 13, 2009 at 12:28 PM | PERMALINK

Given the pathetic state of the news media in Texas, my guess is Perry is not paying a price for his outrageous conduct. The voters just don't know what a corrupt asshole he is because the newspapers and television stations in Texas are afraid to tell the truth.

Posted by: Ron Byers on October 13, 2009 at 12:40 PM | PERMALINK

Texas is an embarassment to the country.

Posted by: rbe1 on October 13, 2009 at 1:25 PM | PERMALINK

What do you expect? Perry is a Christian and a Republican.
Posted by: John C

sorry but all you who are politicizing this are wrong. you're trivializing essentially an act of murder by one man. whether you're left (as i am), right, republican, democrat (as i am), pro death penalty or against (as i am), the acts of rick perry amount to depraved indifference, misfeasance and malfeasance of his duties as governor and an act of base inhumanity. perry chose political expediency over doing his duty as governor and his responsibility to another human being.

and while this is an extreme case, the hands of many democrats aren't exactly clean when it comes to the death penalty.

Posted by: mudwall jackson on October 13, 2009 at 1:52 PM | PERMALINK

mudwall, I agree that this is serious and is murder, but unfortunately it isn't just one man - and therein lies the problem. blame is easy to deflect when it is diffuse. having the death penalty, particularly as poorly as it is implemented in the United States is assured of resulting in murder periodically. It is systematic. There is a prosecution team, witnesses, experts, jurors, legislators (often of both parties), appeals courts, a governor and staff, and the execution team who all have blood on their hands in a situation like this (and while Texas justice by most accounts is among the worst in the states, it is hardly the only state to have wrongfully sentenced someone to death unjustly).

In some ways, making an example of Perry is exactly a political (though not necessarily a partisan) thing -- and that isn't all bad. Taking Perry out feels just but solves little in itself. Using this case as an example to drive broader political change and the suspension (and ultimately reversal) of the use of the death penalty should be the real goal, and realistically that will require a political campaign to change voters minds, to change elected officials, and to change laws.

Posted by: zeitgeist on October 13, 2009 at 2:12 PM | PERMALINK

Color me cynical. Or maybe somebody that has just paid attention over the years.

Lesson one for Rick Perry. If you are going to railroad a guy to the death chamber maybe you should make sure it is not a white guy who has Christmas pictures of him with his three kids.

In the world we would like to live in it wouldn't matter if the wrongly executed man was named Tyrone Willingham and was from inner city Houston, the outrage would be the same. But that is not the world we live in, instead we are in a Nancy Grace world where the worst crime imaginable is a blond girl/women getting kidnapped/murdered.

There have been any number of reported Texas executions where the proof of guilt seemed sketchy at best, but it is clear as clear that when it comes to the court of public opinion justice is by no means blind to color. If Willingham had been black I doubt even the black community would be able to create the same stir within their own ranks. Because nothing about this would strike them as new, unjustified killings inside and outside the justice system being a regular feature since Reconstruction.

Note to politicians and criminals everywhere (to the extent there is a difference): in this society there are severe penalties for killing white people. (Unless they are hookers with bad mug shots. Who seem to be fair game some places.)

Posted by: Bruce Webb on October 13, 2009 at 3:16 PM | PERMALINK

Perry is fully invested in the utter barbarity and immorality of Texas's criminal justice system. Why would it be surprising in the least that he is acting in a profoundly immoral way?

Posted by: pluege on October 13, 2009 at 5:53 PM | PERMALINK

The reason this case is important is that the problems that lead to Willingham's execution are systemic. It is a virtual certainty that a number of innocent people have been executed in the past but it is almost impossible to prove that this has happened after the fact.

Even before someone is executed, our entire court system turns the presumption of innocence on its head once the original trial returns a verdict of guilty. New evidence can only be introduced at a few specific points in the appeals process and this evidence generally has to show a virtual certainty of innocence rather than merely throwing doubt on the conviction in order to overtun the verdict. Meanwhile, most courts categorically refuse to hear cases to exonerate people once they have been executed. This means that the only opportunity for an official finding that an innocent man has been executed is in commissions like this one.

Meanwhile, the lack of an official finding that anyone innocent has ever been executed allows death penalty supporters to convince themselves that the supposed protections in our system work. They can then dismiss the over 120 people who have been found innocent after spending years on death row. They can choose not to worry that many of those people would have been executed before they had time to prove their innocence under rules enacted over the last decade or so to streamline the appeals process.

Furthermore, Willingham is a particularly compelling case. Although he had a criminal record, his previous convictions were for relatively minor offenses and a number of people, including his former parole officer, felt that he was a basically decent person who had turned his life around since becoming a father. Furthermore, the evidence indicates that not only did he not commit murder, but that no murder took place at all, only a tragic accident.

An official finding by the Texas State Forensice commission would force to confront this fact and look at all the ways that the system failed:

Experienced arson investigators who had no scientific training and based their testimony on outdated rules-of-thumb that had recently been proven invalid by careful testing.

Eyewitnesses that originally painted a sysmpathetic picture of Willingham and changed their testimony almost 180 degrees after the arson investigator's report.

Prosecutor's that could not find any motive for Willingham to kill his children, and therefore repeatedly charactized him in court as a "demon" and monster and a psychopath -- despite and formal psychiatric diagnosis to back this up.

Public defenders who had little or no experience in death penalty cases, had no resources to hire outside experts or investigators and who in any case, believed their client was guilty even after he categorically refused a plea-bargain that would have spared his life. They presented only one witness in his defense and refused to allow him to testify on his own behalf.

An appeals process that virtually never reverses the trial verdict and when it does do so, almost always does so over prosecutorial misconduct or improper jury instructions or other procedural issues, not over new evidence or over doubts about old evidence and testimony.

A parole review board that virtually never grants clemency and has no statutory obligation to provide due diligence. That in the case of Willingham, never spoke in person to either him or his attorney, and that refuses to indicate whether any of its members even read the expert testimony in his favor that was included in his clemency petition.

A governor who is statutorial limited to granting a 30-day stay of execution and who virtually never does even that much. Who also refuses to release documents indicating whether he or any of his aides even read the expert testimony in Willingham's favor. Who is now engaged in a rather blatant attempt to block the forensics review committee from considering whether Willingham was wrongly executed and to pressure them to limit any reports to a narrow focus on forensic procedures and standards.

Posted by: tanstaafl on October 13, 2009 at 6:50 PM | PERMALINK

If a state can't manage to do Justice even when the information is available for them, then the U.S. federal gov't should make the death penalty illegal.

Posted by: MarkH on October 13, 2009 at 8:49 PM | PERMALINK
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