Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Rick Perry, Cameron Todd Willingham, and the death penalty

Posted By on 08.16.11 at 11:55 AM

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On the occasion of Texas governor Rick Perry's entry into the Republican presidential primary, the New Yorker is highlighting on its website David Grann’s astonishing 2009 feature about Cameron Todd Willingham, a potentially innocent man accused of—and executed for—lighting a house fire that killed his three children. “Trial by Fire” reiterates some of what the Chicago Tribune found in a 2004 analysis—namely that the techniques used by investigators into the alleged arson were outdated and misleading. "There's nothing to suggest to any reasonable arson investigator that this was an arson fire," chemist Gerald Hurst, who authored a report on the case, told the Trib. “It was just a fire.”

Even Edward Cheever, one of the state deputy fire marshals who had assisted in the original investigation of the 1991 fire, acknowledged that Hurst's criticism was valid.

"At the time of the Corsicana fire, we were still testifying to things that aren't accurate today," he said. "They were true then, but they aren't now.

"Hurst," he added, "was pretty much right on. ... We know now not to make those same assumptions."

Five years later, Grann wrote that such a case—the execution of somebody demonstrably innocent—is “a kind of grisly Holy Grail” for death penalty opponents:

In 2000, after thirteen people on death row in Illinois were exonerated, George Ryan, who was then governor of the state, suspended the death penalty. Though he had been a longtime advocate of capital punishment, he declared that he could no longer support a system that has “come so close to the ultimate nightmare—the state’s taking of innocent life.” Former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor has said that the “execution of a legally and factually innocent person would be a constitutionally intolerable event.”

What does this have to do with Rick Perry? In 2009, the Texas Forensic Science Commission was set to hear a scathing repudiation of the science behind the arson investigation that sent Willingham to the death chamber:

The finding comes in the first state-sanctioned review of an execution in Texas, home to the country's busiest death chamber. If the commission reaches the same conclusion, it could lead to the first-ever declaration by an official state body that an inmate was wrongly executed.

Shortly before the commission was to hear the report, Perry (who declined to grant a last minute stay-of-execution to Willingham in 2004) replaced three of its members, and installed a close ally on the panel. In spring 2011, the commission released a draft report acknowledging that fire science has changed, but abstaining from issuing an opinion on the Willingham case. Perry continued to maintain that "clear and compelling, overwhelming evidence" made the case against Willingham; he called critics of the investigation “latter-day supposed experts.”

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