Perry Terminates Board Members Investigating Execution


nooseGov. Rick Perry, like Pilate before him, washed his hands of any responsibility for the execution of a man experts say was innocent. And now Perry has fired three board members of the state agency investigating the controversial 2004 execution of Cameron Todd Willingham. If ever there was a story that the Texas press corps should to pursue to the point of saturation coverage, this is it.

“Business as usual,” Perry told the Associated Press the firings were “business as usual.” No kidding. Last time it was just some university regents who no longer supported him. This time it was a group of people investigating whether Perry’s government killed an innocent man.

This time it involves members of the Texas Forensic Science Commission investigating whether the State – let me emphasize this for Perry’s teabagger friends who rail about intrusive government – whether the State killed an innocent man, Cameron Todd Willingham. Willingham was convicted in the arson deaths of his three infant daughters. Killed by lethal injection, Willingham professed his innocence until the end. Perry denied a stay of execution, another way of saying the governor ordered the death of Willingham.

Three independent reviews  say the deadly fire was not deliberately set. It wasn’t arson. Willingham was innocent. The most recent expert to criticize the original investigation, nationally recognized authority Craig Beyler, was scheduled to speak to a public meeting of the Forensic Commission on Friday.

So Perry fired the commissioners, and the meeting’s been cancelled. Perry no doubt feels like a little death penalty squabble will fire up his right wing base. His Republican opponent, Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, offered mild criticism of Perry, but stressed that she was a strong supporter of the death penalty. Such cowardice is business as usual with these two.

Here’s Perry’s thinking: His voters support the death penalty. Texans won’t learn enough about the details of the case to think it’s anything but an argument over the death penalty, and he’ll be on the right side of that argument. End of story. The great moral matters of innocence and death are reduced to insignificant little nothings. This is why it is deadly important that the press get the facts to voters.

Let me ask this question: Do we really want the State to take such a murderously cavalier and political approach to the killing of Texans? Many years ago, I covered Death Row as a reporter. Among the few sentenced to death at the time, there were none I ever wanted to see go free. However, investing the State – any state – with the power of death over its citizens seemed to me then and seems to me now a dangerous, democracy-threatening thing to do. Perry’s handling of the Willingham case proves the point.

Here’s how David Grann of the New Yorker described Beyler’s findings on the investigation that led to Willingham’s death.

In a scathing report, he concluded that investigators in the Willingham case had no scientific basis for claiming that the fire was arson, ignored evidence that contradicted their theory, had no comprehension of flashover and fire dynamics, relied on discredited folklore, and failed to eliminate potential accidental or alternative causes of the fire.

And here’s how the Dallas Morning News describes Perry’s actions:

This week, the governor chose not to extend the terms of Austin lawyer Sam Bassett, former chair of the commission, as well as two others on the nine-member Texas Forensic Science Commission. The new commission chair promptly cancelled Friday’s meeting on the Beyler report.

The Willingham case, in which his three young children died in a 1991 Corsicana house fire, has drawn national attention. Anti-death penalty advocates consider it the likeliest case in recent decades in which an innocent man was executed.

Perry had denied Willingham’s request for a stay of execution five years ago. His lawyers asked the governor for the 30-day reprieve to give the courts time to review new reports that called the fire investigation into question. Willingham had always maintained his innocence.

Next time, it might be someone you love who is wrongly accused. It might even be you. The debate over the death penalty will go on. Meanwhile, the actions of Rick Perry must be judged within the context of today’s law. In that context, Perry’s actions are morally repugnant. Perry ought to want to know the truth of the matter. The truth won’t hurt him politically and it might save his soul.

I have no doubt Perry will try to make this a debate about the death penalty. It is not. At the core, it should be a debate about the governor’s moral judgment. He could probably fight that debate to a draw by standing up now for the truth. Instead,  he’s managed to make the best argument to date for a moratorium on executions.

Hutchison’s weak statement on the matter serves her no better. Democratic gubernatorial hopeful Tom Schieffer was stronger, demanding today that the Forensics Commission reschedule the hearing Perry succeeding in obstructing.

Schieffer said, “No one in public life should ever be afraid of the truth. In the final analysis, truth is the only thing that serves justice.” Truth is damned important to justice in the initial analysis, too.

Perry was apparently acting within his legal authority when he refused to reappoint the Forensics Commission members. His action is obstruction of justice nonetheless.

Author: Glenn W. Smith

Glenn W. Smith has spent the past 30 years in journalism and politics, where he’s made a name for himself as a writer, campaign manager, activist, think tank analyst and, as Daily Kos founder Markos Moulitsas says, a “legendary political consultant and all-around good guy.” “There’s no one like him,” says author George Lakoff. CNN commentator Paul Begala says, “He has unmatched experience, a graceful pen (or pixel nowadays) and deep insight into the best and worst of us.” Novelist Sarah Bird speaks of his “lucid and lyrical” prose. And, she says, he’s fun. Huffington Post founder Arianna Huffington says Glenn writes with “grace and abundant humor” and “uses his colorful experiences in Texas to enlighten us all.”

Smith led Ann Richards’ successful 1990 campaign for Governor of Texas. He worked for former Texas Lt. Gov. Bill Hobby and U.S. Senator Lloyd Bentsen. Earlier, Smith was a political reporter for the Houston Chronicle and the Houston Post. He’s coordinated national campaigns for groups such as In 2004, he authored the highly acclaimed book, The Politics of Deceit: Saving Freedom and Democracy from Extinction. He also wrote Unfit Commander, a book that detailed George W. Bush’s mysterious disappearance from military service.

In 2004, Smith was featured in the film, Bush’s Brain, a documentary about Karl Rove. Smith provided commentary on Rove’s role as then-President Bush’s senior advisor. He has made numerous media appearances with Chris Mathews on Hardball, Joe Scarborough, Brit Hume, and many others. He writes a regularly for top national web sites, including FireDogLake and Huffington Post.

As a senior fellow at George Lakoff’s prestigious Rockridge Institute in Berkeley he studied, wrote and taught on the power of metaphor and narrative in political communications. He also lectured on religion and politics at the Starr King School for Ministry in Berkeley. As a sponsor and organizer, he has pulled together numerous national events with progressive religious leaders. He also organized a celebration of Dr. Martin Luther King at Riverside Church in New York City as well as “Freedom and Faith” bus tours, which was a nationwide campaign for social justice and progressive values.

Smith’s play, Double Play, which explored American Western myths and legends, was held over to sold-out audiences. He’s even written and performed songs in the Americana tradition, such as his best-known song, “Helping Marty Robbins,” a tribute to his hometown, Houston.

Most recently, Smith is the creator of DogCanyon, a political and cultural web site covering state, national and global issues from a Texas perspective. DogCanyon is an exhilarating and unique site that gets the connections between politics and culture and explores both the personal side of politics and the ups, down, craziness and beauty of “life its ownself,” as humorist Dan Jenkins would say. DogCanyon offers heartfelt personal essays, hard-hitting political analysis, and, most importantly, laughs.

As Paul Begala said, Smith writes in “the finest, firmest, fearless tradition of Texas essayists like Molly Ivins.”

19 thoughts on “Perry Terminates Board Members Investigating Execution”

  1. I encourage everyone to read the entire New Yorker story:

    It is chilling. Basically, if faulty wiring starts a fire and your children die in the blaze … Texas might just put you to death for good measure.

    Why is it that govt officials never admit their mistakes?

    1. It is chilling, Lane. Thanks for encouraging readers to check it out. And, in this instance, Perry could publicly get to the truth without damage to himself politically, I think. While some knowledge of the sloppy, almost incoherent investigation was available to him, the fault was still with the investigators. In this instance, Perry is aggressively using the poor man’s death to bait opponents into a superficial discussion of the death penalty. That is morally depraved.

  2. The Texas Moratorium Network has a petition up, as well as contact information for calling and writing Gov. Perry.

    While very different issues, I think there’s a connection to be made between Perry’s actions in this case, and the actions of large numbers of Austin and DC Insiders related to health care reform — the real lives of real people, not to mention their deaths, are of less importance than making political points.

  3. Glenn, thanks for this important post. The eyes of the world are upon Texas, which has almost certainly executed an innocent man. Bully for you for tying this outrage to Perry’s anti-government rants with the teabaggers.

    Let’s see if I get this straight: Perry and the teabaggers don’t trust the government to write an insurance policy, but they do trust the government to lock a man in a cage for years, to strap that man down on a gurney, and fill his veins with poison – in the case of poor Mr. Willingham, for a crime he did not commit. I know a lot of principled conservatives who oppose the death penalty, based on their distrust of government. Perry, of course, is neither truly principled nor truly conservative. He is a small man, a moral coward, and a political opportunist of the worst sort. Thank you for calling this to my attention.

    1. As usual, Paul, you’ve described the contradiction simply and perfectly: teabaggers don’t trust government to write an insurance policy, but they trust government with power to execute their fellow citizens. I, too, know principled conservatives who don’t trust government with that kind of power. Rick Perry is the best argument conservative or liberal death penalty opponents have for not investing the state with such power.

  4. When I read about this on Huffington Post, I immediately searched for the New Yorker, and I have been sick ever since. Today, when I read about Perry’s latest trick, I became sick and angry. However, I don’t believe that Perry’s base will be bothered by this matter because they will just rationize that Mr. Willingham probably deserved execution for other reasons. I feel like our governor would be best described as a male Sarah Palin. He doesn’t seem to work very hard or be very intelligent. He certainly doesn’t know Texas history very well. I appreciate this post and the comments

  5. Thanks for today’s (Oct. 2) updates on this, Glenn. And to all who are commenting. We can help, I hope, by contacing Perry, using the resources of The Innocence Project, Texas Moratorium Network, and no doubt other resources about which I am unaware.

  6. Glen:

    I have watched the governor since 2004 election and found him to be arrogant, disrespectful to others. He is cunning, lying and untruthful in his statements and actions.

    There are times he has acted as the supreme ruler and making calls in the areas where he is not qualified. One prime example is his executive order for the compulsory vaccination against the Papaloma virus. How much money did he get from the pharmaceutical company in that deal? His dishonesty shows even on his face.

    He came close to being held accountable for the execution of an innocent man so he dissolved the investigation committee. This is the typical of the right wing GOP members of administration throughout the country. They know how to blame others but do not have the guts to admit their own fault.

    Mr. Perry’ action in this case is disgraceful. He should resign from his office.

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