The governor of death buries the truth

October 19, 2009

Nicole Colson reports on the Texas governor's attempts to evade responsibility for having executed an innocent man--while the machinery of death is readied to kill again.

TEXAS GOV. Rick Perry is resorting to Richard Nixon-like tactics to bury the truth--the fact that he oversaw the execution of an innocent man.

Growing evidence indicates that Cameron Todd Willingham, who was executed in 2004 for setting a 1991 fire that killed his three small daughters, never committed the crime he was accused of.

But Perry is doing his best to squelch any discussion of that evidence. He went so far as to fire three members of a Texas commission, days before the panel was set to hear about the many flaws in the scientific evidence and testimony that secured a conviction against Willingham.

The firing was reminiscent of Nixon's infamous "Saturday Night Massacre"--in which he fired a special prosecutor and top Justice Department officials in an ultimately unsuccessful effort to keep the Watergate scandal covered up.

You might think that the blood of one innocent man on his hands would be enough to give Perry pause. Yet even as questions about Willingham's innocence mount, Perry is pushing full-steam ahead with the state's death machine--promising to oversee the execution of Reginald Blanton, another man who may very well be innocent, on October 27.

Texas Governor Rick Perry has presided over 200 executions during his tenure so far
Texas Governor Rick Perry has presided over 200 executions during his tenure so far (Rita Quinn)

Responding to the growing uproar about Willingham's execution, Perry dared to call Willingham a "monster" whose guilt was confirmed by the courts "every step of the way." Given the mounting evidence that the courts were misled by fanatical prosecutors and their incompetent scientific "experts," this counts as further insult from a man who deserves to be charged with negligent homicide.

WILLINGHAM WAS executed on February 17, 2004. By then, a series of problems with his case--many of them commonplace to death row cases--had come to light.

As New Yorker reporter David Grann laid out in devastating detail in an investigation published last month, Willingham's conviction was based on the flimsiest of supposed motives: that, in the words of Corsicana, Texas, District Attorney Pat Batchelor, his children "were interfering with his beer drinking and dart throwing."

Witnesses who originally described Willingham as frantic to save his children (he suffered burns and had to be restrained from running back into the burning home) began to change their stories once Willingham came under public scrutiny. A jailhouse snitch claimed Willingham confessed--although the snitch later admitted to suffering from mental illness and drug addiction, and tried to recant his testimony). Two state medical "experts" would take the stand to assure jurors that Willingham--who they had never met--fit the criteria of a sociopath, based on little more than tattoos and rock posters.

But the lynchpin in the state's case was the supposedly iron-clad scientific evidence against Willingham--findings from an arson investigation that included, according to Deputy Fire Marshal Manuel Vasquez, more than 20 indicators that the fire had been deliberately set.

Even before Willingham's execution, however, it was clear that the scientific "facts" were questionable. In 2004, renowned fire investigator Gerald Hurst, was asked to look at the evidence, and found, according to Grann, that of the "20 indicators" of arson, only one was scientifically valid--and there was an easy explanation for it.

In other words, the "science" that put Cameron Todd Willingham on death row was a fraud.

Hurst found that the fire was most likely started by a space heater or faulty wiring, not arson. But the report that Hurst rushed to prepare in time to save Willingham's life was ignored by Texas officials--including Gov. Rick Perry's office. According to Grann:

The Innocence Project obtained, through the Freedom of Information Act, all the records from the governor's office and the board pertaining to Hurst's report. "The documents show that they received the report, but neither office has any record of anyone acknowledging it, taking note of its significance, responding to it, or calling any attention to it within the government," Barry Scheck said. "The only reasonable conclusion is that the governor's office and the Board of Pardons and Paroles ignored scientific evidence."

Days later, on February 13, the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles denied Willingham's request for clemency.

LaFayette Collins, who was a member of the board at the time, explained the mindset of the panel to Grann: "You don't vote guilt or innocence," Collins said. "You don't retry the trial. You just make sure everything is in order, and there are no glaring errors." According to Grann, Collins "noted that although the rules allowed for a hearing to consider important new evidence, 'in my time, there had never been one called.' When I asked him why Hurst's report didn't constitute evidence of 'glaring errors,' he said, 'We get all kinds of reports, but we don't have the mechanisms to vet them.'"

Hurst isn't the only expert to have debunked the "science" that helped take Cameron Todd Willingham's life. Several fire experts--employed by the Innocence Project, among others--who re-examined the case in the years since Willingham's execution agreed with Hurst's opinion.

Pro-death penalty officials claim such reports are open to "bias" because of their sources--a laughable idea coming from the same people who let unqualified "experts" who had never met Cameron Todd Willingham diagnose him as a "sociopath."

Nevertheless, the state of Texas commissioned its own fire scientist, Craig Beyler, to conduct an independent review for the Texas Forensic Science Commission--which was formed in 2005 to investigate allegations of error and misconduct by forensic scientists. This past August, Beylor released his report into the Willingham case and that of another prisoner.

It was a damning indictment. In the report, noted David Grann, Beyler said that investigators "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."

Investigator Manuel Vasquez, in particular, cited arson statistics which "far exceed any rational estimate," according to Beyler--who added that Vasquez's approach seemed to deny "rational reasoning" and his testimony at trial was "hardly consistent with a scientific mindset and is more characteristic of mystics or psychics.

BEYLER WAS set to present his findings to the Texas Forensic Science Commission on October 2--but two days before he could, Rick Perry intervened.

"At first," noted Houston Chronicle reporter Lisa Falkenberg, "Perry tried to discredit Beyler, using air quotes in an interview with The Dallas Morning News [in mid-September] to refer to 'latter-day supposed experts' who have cast doubt on Willingham's conviction."

Then, on September 30, Perry abruptly removed three members from the nine-member commission--including its head--forcing the meeting where Beyler was scheduled to present his report to be cancelled.

Perry lamely tried to play down his actions, claiming that the terms of the dismissed board members were expiring soon, and replacing them "was pretty standard business as usual." But several board members have served more than one term and had their appointments renewed in the past.

Attorney Sam Bassett, the former head of the commission, told the Associated Press that he suspected he would be replaced after Beyler issued his report--and heard that Perry's office was suddenly looking for new commissioners. "In my view, we should not fail to investigate important forensic issues in cases simply because there might be political ramifications," he said.

Later, Bassett admitted that aides to Perry had tried in the past to pressure him over the direction of the panel's inquiries into the Willingham case. Bassett said that on two occasions, he was called to meetings with Perry's top attorneys. At one, he was told the governor's office was unhappy with the panel's inquiry.

"I was surprised that they were involving themselves in the commission's decision-making," Bassett told the Dallas Morning News. "I did feel some pressure from them, yes. There's no question about that." Among other things, Bassett says he was questioned as to why an arson investigator from Texas wasn't hired, as opposed to Beyler, who is from Maryland.

The Innocence Project's Barry Scheck compared Perry's move to Richard Nixon. "It's a Saturday night massacre, pure and simple," Scheck told the Houston Chronicle. "If you don't like the evidence, you just get rid of the judges."

Perry is facing a challenge to his reelection hopes from fellow Republican Kay Bailey Hutchinson, currently Texas' senator and now a Republican primary candidate for the governorship. For her part, Hutchinson has been attacking Perry on the Willingham issue, but from the right--claiming that his removal of the commissioners hands "liberals" more ammunition to challenge the death penalty.

She's right. The conviction and execution of Cameron Todd Willingham should give anyone pause about the way that the justice system works when it comes to the death penalty--particularly in Texas, the nation's leading executioner. The ease with which the state sent an innocent man to his death is a shocking indictment of the system.

At least one member of the jury that sentenced Cameron Todd Willingham to death has come forward to say that she is no longer convinced that he was guilty.

"I don't sleep at night because of a lot of this," juror Dorenda Brokofsky recently told CNN. "I have gone back and forth in my mind trying to think of anything that we missed. I don't like the fact that years later someone is saying maybe we made a mistake, that the facts aren't what they could've been."

"I do have doubts now...I mean, we can only go with what we knew at the time, but I don't like the fact now that maybe this man was executed by our word because of evidence that is not true. It may not be true now. And I don't like the fact that I may have to face my God and explain what I did."

MANY OF the same doubts about Willingham's guilt exist in the case of Reginald Blanton--the next Texas prisoner scheduled to be executed on October 27.

Blanton, accused of murdering his friend Carlos Garza, was convicted on testimony coerced by police. No physical evidence connected him to the crime, and a shoeprint on the door that he supposedly kicked in to get to Garza was two sizes too small to be his. His public defenders never brought this fact up at trial. African Americans were summarily stricken from the jury pool.

Yet despite all this, Perry, who could halt the execution, has so far refused to do so.

At a recent rally for Reggie Blanton, his mother, Anna Terrell, pleaded with Perry, "At least have my son's case looked into before it's too late."

It's too late for Cameron Todd Willingham, but it doesn't have to be for Reginald Blanton. Activists are putting pressure on Perry--who should be reminded that the blood of one innocent man on his hands is more than enough.

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