Gov. 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.