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.