22 October 2009

Beyond reasonable doubt 2

Last month, I raised attention about David Grann's article in the New Yorker about Cameron Todd Willingham, who was executed for the murder of his daughters through arson.

An Australian writer in New York, Bernard Lagan, has now raised the case in The Age and Sydney Morning Herald (same publisher). Highly unusual for Australian newspapers.
Within three weeks of the publication of the New Yorker article, Perry suddenly, and totally unexpectedly, announced that he had fired members of the Texas Forensics Commission, whom he had appointed, just two days before the commission was to hear evidence from one of America's mostly highly regarded arson experts on the Willingham case. Dr Craig Beyler intended to say Willingham had been convicted on evidence of arson that was wrong. Other leading experts have agreed that the original arson findings were made by ill-trained men who had little or no understanding of fire behaviour.
On Wednesday, under increasing suspicion that his office – and he – had ignored the evidence that might have saved Willingham, [Texas Governor Rick] Perry refused to release written advice he had received from his general counsel about giving a stay of execution. Instead he called Willingham a monster.

For those who don't believe that Governor Perry or the US system would be capable of killing an innocent, it is worth considering one fact; 17 people have left death row alive because DNA testing proved their innocence after a death sentence. They served an average of 12 years in prison.
John Burnett in All Things Considered on NPR also raised important issues
Did Texas execute an innocent man?
That question, and the controversy surrounding it, continues to dog Gov. Rick Perry. Critics say the governor has tried to squelch an investigation into the case. Now the issue has moved to the forefront of Perry's effort to win re-election.

At the heart of the controversy is Cameron Todd Willingham, who was executed by lethal injection in 2004 after being convicted of setting a house fire in Corsicana that killed his three children.

The Texas Forensic Science Commission hired a nationally recognized arson expert to examine the fire science used to convict Willingham. In a report made public in August, that expert, Craig Beyler, asserted the initial arson investigation was deeply flawed, adding his voice to those of other fire investigators who now doubt whether arson caused the fatal blaze.

Just as the commission was set to hear from Beyler in late September, Perry abruptly removed three of its members, including the chairman. The chairman, Sam Bassett, later said he felt pressure from the governor's office because it was unhappy over how the Willingham probe was proceeding.

Governor Defends His Actions

As the uproar swelled, the governor went on the offensive. He called Willingham "a monster" and said numerous state and federal courts had upheld his conviction for more than a decade. Perry dismissed contrary views as those of "latter-day supposed experts."

As for the shakeup on the Forensic Science Commission, Perry said, "What's happening is we're following pretty normal protocol in the state. Those individuals' terms were up, so we replaced them — nothing out of the ordinary there."

But the state's leading newspapers aren't buying his explanation. Their editorial pages have roundly condemned the governor's actions as arrogant. They also have criticized his refusal to release an advisory memo from his general counsel regarding clemency for Willingham on the eve of his execution. The governor says the state attorney general has ruled that the memo is protected by attorney-client privilege.

Leading Republican Opponent Criticizes Perry

Capital punishment is sacrosanct in Texas, which executes more inmates than any other state. No serious candidate from either party runs against it.

So it was with some delicacy that Perry's opponent for the Republican nomination for governor, U.S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, took on the Willingham case.

"I just think the governor made a mistake in trying to ramrod a covering up of what might be more evidence for the future," Hutchison told a Dallas-Fort Worth radio station.

Perry's office pounced on Hutchison, knowing the popularity of capital punishment in Texas — upwards of 70 percent of the population support it.

"If the senator is suggesting she opposes the death penalty for an individual who murdered his three daughters, then she should just say so," said the governor's spokeswoman, Allison Castle.

However, the senator had started her statement by saying she's "a steadfast supporter of the death penalty."

"The point that Hutchison is trying to make about Rick Perry is that he's hurt the death penalty, weakened it, by making it look to people outside Texas — and a lot of people in Texas — that he's playing fast and loose with the death penalty," said Dave McNeely, a longtime political journalist in Austin.

Perry, who gained his seat after George W. Bush left the Texas governor's mansion for the White House in 2001, is the longest-serving governor in Texas history. He's seeking an unprecedented third term.

Perry's new chairman of the Forensic Science Commission, John Bradley, is a hard-nosed district attorney and a conservative ally of the governor. He says he needs time to study the Willingham arson report and has not set a new date for the commission to consider it.
Surely, the case is an argument against the death penalty. Senator Kay Baily Hutchison's motives in raising the issue are probably purely political and not on any moral or ethical grounds.

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