Unequal Justice: Perry Admits Medina Role in Willingham Execution

David Medina, Gov. Rick Perry’s general counsel when Perry denied a stay of execution to Cameron Todd Willingham, was later cleared of arson-related charges in the fire that destroyed his home. Medina is now on the Texas Supreme Court. His wife, Francisca, was cleared of arson charges based on an independent forensic and arson investigator’s report. The expert found the fire might have been accidental.

Willingham was convicted and sentenced to death for a fire that killed his three children. A report from an independent forensic and arson investigator sent to Perry and Medina 88 minutes before the execution said the fire was probably accidental. Perry and Medina ignored it as irrelevant. Perry has subsequently mocked independent scientists.

Now Perry has publicly admitted Medina’s role in the 2004 Willingham execution. There could be no greater or more tragic example of our unequal, two-tiered system of justice. I don’t know if the Medinas set the fire or not. I don’t know if Willingham was guilty, although all the independent experts say the fire wasn’t even arson, meaning no crime was committed.

What I do know is that a scientist’s report in the Medina case was given so much weight that the indictment was dismissed. In the Willingham case, such a report was not deemed important enough to delay an execution. Perry and Medina were not asked to pardon Willingham or find him not guilty. They were asked to wait a while before executing him. That’s all.

Steve Mills of the Chicago Tribune, has listed the deceptions in Perry’s recent responses to the Willingham case:

Charge: On Thursday, officials in Corsicana, Texas, released a sworn affidavit from the brother of Willingham’s wife that he signed shortly before the execution. In it, he claims that Stacy Willingham told her family that her husband confessed to her before the execution.

Fact: In 2004, Stacy Willingham told the Tribune that Willingham never confessed. Earlier this year she told David Grann, a reporter for The New Yorker magazine, that she stood by her statements. She came to believe that Willingham was guilty after she reviewed the case herself.

In addition, on the same day that Stacy Willingham’s brother claimed she told the family that Willingham had confessed, she spoke to the local newspaper, saying that during her last meeting with him, he maintained his innocence.

She did not mention a confession.

Charge: Perry has called the fire scientists and investigators who have reviewed the case “latter-day supposed experts.” He has suggested they were aligned with death penalty opponents. Both statements appear to be efforts to question their impartiality and their credentials.

Fact: The nine scientists and investigators involved, all of whom have found the original investigation flawed, have worked for both defense lawyers and prosecutors, as well as for attorneys in civil litigation. All are considered among the field’s leaders. Some are viewed as prosecution-oriented.

They have no vested interest in the outcome of the debate and are not active in the nation’s ongoing death penalty debate.

“My work was a scientific investigation,” said Craig Beyler, who investigated the case for the Texas Forensic Science Commission. “There’s no political agenda.”

Charge: Perry said recently that there was “clear and compelling, overwhelming evidence” of Willingham’s guilt. He has said more than a dozen courts rejected Willingham’s claims.

Fact: The heart of the case prosecutors brought against Willingham was that the fire was arson. Besides testimony from fire investigators, prosecutors offered a jail inmate who said Willingham told him he set the fire. The inmate, however, was a drug addict who was taking psychiatric medication at the time. Since the trial, he has hinted his testimony was false; even prosecutors have discounted his claims.

Willingham’s appeals did make their way through the state and federal courts, but his claim that the fire investigation was flawed was made just before his execution to a Texas court and a federal appeals court, as well as to the governor and the state’s parole board.

Charge: Perry has called Willingham a “monster.” The man who prosecuted him, John Jackson, suggested in a “Nightline” interview on ABC that Willingham was a devil-worshiper because he listened to heavy-metal music and had a band poster in the house.

Jackson also claimed fire patterns on the floor were in the shape of a pentagram to buttress his contention.

Fact: There is no evidence in court records to support claims that Willingham was involved in any such activities. Fire investigators made no references to the shape of burn patterns.

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About 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 MoveOn.org. 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.”