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Cameron Todd Willingham Execution: Rick Perry's Role Deserves Scrutiny

Rick Perry Cameron Todd Willingham Execution

First Posted: 09/02/11 04:25 PM ET Updated: 11/02/11 06:12 AM ET

Similarly, in the summer of 2000, Bush made sure that a man named Shaka Sankofa was put to death by the state of Texas in the midst of his presidential run, despite an international effort to persuade the governor to review evidence suggesting an improper conviction.

Presidential campaign controversy over capital punishment is not limited to Republicans, either. In January of 1992, Ricky Ray Rector was executed in the state of Arkansas. Some 11 years prior, Rector got into a dispute at a nightclub in Conway, Ark., pulled a gun and fired several shots, killing one man and wounding two others. After living on the lam for three days, Rector arranged for a police officer named Robert Martin to take him into custody, but upon Martin's arrival, Rector shot and killed him before turning the gun on himself.

Rector, however, did not die of his self-inflicted wounds, and was prosecuted despite the strenuous objections of his defense attorneys, who argued that he was not competent to stand trial. Rector's diminished mental capacity formed the basis of pleas for clemency in his case.

However, Bill Clinton, in the midst of the 1992 presidential campaign, made a special trip back to Arkansas from the campaign trail to make sure Rector's execution was proceeding as planned. Clinton's actions were seen by some as base political grandstanding -- campaign watchers could easily recall the poor reception Michael Dukakis received after stating at a debate that he would not support the death penalty even if his own wife had been murdered. Author Christopher Hitchens, in particular, fiercely criticized Clinton for his macabre political move, which he saw as a way of distracting the nation from the Gennifer Flowers scandal.

It is said that right up to the end, Rector had no capacity for understanding what was happening to him. He's perhaps best known for setting aside the dessert portion of his last meal, believing full well that he could enjoy it later.

In each of these cases, there's a fair amount with which to grapple. Death penalty opponents see in these instances ample reasons to curtail the practice -- the mental fitness of defendants, past histories of abuse, inadequate legal defenses, even bona fide moral conversions. But despite the debate that raged back then, and the scrutiny that presidential aspirants were put under for their decisions in capital punishment cases, there's one thing that Bush and Clinton could fall back upon when pressed -- an actual crime had been committed.

That's what makes the Cameron Todd Willingham case different for Rick Perry. It's not just that the science says Willingham is innocent of the crime he was accused of, it's that the science says that there was no crime in the first place. And that's precisely the matter that the Texas Forensic Science Commission was set to explore when Perry stepped in and put a stop to it.

* * * * *

In 2002, a team of investigative journalists at KHOU-CBS TV in Houston undertook an investigation of Houston's police crime laboratory, and uncovered a shocking litany of woes, including contaminated evidence, infrastructural rot and personnel who lacked the training and the expertise to do their jobs correctly. This touched off a scandal of national proportions. New York Times reporter Adam Liptak titled his 2003 report on the matter, "Worst Crime Lab In The Country?", and subsequent reporting found that, while the disclosure immediately forced officials to retest "evidence in 360 cases," officials faced "a much larger crisis that could involve many thousands of cases over 25 years."

In 2005, the Texas state legislature passed House Bill 1068, which created the Texas Forensic Science Commission. The body was established as an independent entity that would investigate professional misconduct in the forensic field and that was open to public complaint. The Innocence Project went ahead and filed a complaint on the investigation of Cameron Todd Willingham, and the commission unanimously agreed to take up the matter. Under the chairmanship of Sam Bassett, the commission reached out to the aforementioned fire scientist Craig Beyler and asked him to consider the evidence and file an independent report on his findings. Not surprisingly, Beyler quickly came to the same conclusion as Gerald Hurst -- that the evidence did not suggest arson, and that the prosecution's theory of the case couldn't pass scientific muster. After considering Beyler's report, the group asked him to come before their body and make a formal presentation of his findings. That presentation was scheduled for October 2, 2009.

Houston Chronicle, Sept. 30, 2009:

Two days before it was set to hear crucial testimony, and midway through its investigation, Gov. Rick Perry on Wednesday abruptly removed three members of a state forensic science panel looking into a deadly fire for which a man was executed.

Perry, acting more than three weeks after the current commissioners' terms expired, named Williamson County District Attorney John Bradley as the new head of the nine-member Texas Forensic Science Commission, replacing Sam Bassett, an Austin lawyer.

The commission was scheduled to hold a public hearing in the Dallas area Friday to continue its investigation into a December 1991 Corsicana fire in which three children perished.

The children's father, Cameron Todd Willingham, condemned after the fire was labeled an arson, was executed in 2004.

Saying that two days were not sufficient time to familiarize himself with the case, Bradley canceled Friday's meeting.

Bradley was a longtime political ally of Rick Perry, who nominated him to serve as the Williamson County District Attorney in 2001. And upon assuming the role of the chairman of the commission, Bradley distinguished himself as a master of sandbagging. Bradley quickly scuttled the ongoing investigation, postponing the commission's scheduled meeting and essentially taking the Willingham matter back to square one.

The filmmakers behind the documentary film "Incendiary: The Willingham Case," have done an excellent job documenting what unfolded as the commission came under Bradley's reins. When the panel next met, Bradley relocated the meeting site to Harlingen, Texas -- which is about as remote a location as you can visit in the entire United States. Besides presenting an enormous logistical burden for the commission's members, the move was designed to ensure a minimum amount of media attention.

At the Harlingen meeting, Bradley dominated the proceedings by introducing a new set of rules that would govern the committee's work. He imposed new hierarchies on the commission, called for fewer meetings, and generally bogged down the day in bureaucratic minutiae, effectively running out the clock on any substantive discussion of the Willingham case, despite the fact that it was still foremost in the minds of many of the panel's members.

As the documentary film notes, the most significant change that Bradley imposed on the commission was that he mandated that most of the casework be divided up and worked on by small subcommittees within the larger body, despite the fact the commission had always worked together since its founding. Bradley had a good reason to call for the divided subcommittees -- under the law, the smaller breakout meetings were not subject to Texas' Open Meetings Act and could therefore be conducted behind closed doors.

Bradley appointed himself as the head of the subcommittee devoted to the Willingham investigation.