The Dallas Morning News is the first to get Governor Rick Perry to speak publicly about the wrongful execution of Todd Willingham. No surprise from Perry. He rejects the scientific analysis and thinks Willingham was guilty. It is time for the people of Texas to elect a new governor. Perry has several opponents in the Republican primary and if he survives the primary, he will face the winner of the Democratic primary in November 2010.
Sign the petition to Governor Rick Perry and the State of Texas to acknowledge that the fire in the Cameron Todd Willingham case was not arson, therefore no crime was committed and on February 17, 2004, Texas executed an innocent man.
Governor Rick Perry today strenuously defended the execution of a Corsicana man whose conviction for killing his daughters in a house fire hinged on an arson finding that top experts call junk science.
“I’m familiar with the latter-day supposed experts on the arson side of it,” Perry said, making quotation marks with his fingers to underscore his skepticism.
Even without proof that the fire was arson, he added, the court records he reviewed before the execution of Cameron Todd Willingham in 2004 showed “clear and compelling, overwhelming evidence that he was in fact the murderer of his children.”
These were the governor’s first direct comments on a case that has drawn withering criticism from top fire experts.
Death penalty critics view the Willingham case as a study in shoddy – or at least outdated – science, and they consider it the first proven instance in 35 years of an executed man being proven innocent after death.
“Governor Perry refuses to face the fact that Texas executed an innocent man on his watch. Literally all of the evidence that was used to convict Willingham has been disproven – all of it,” said Barry Scheck, co-director of the Innocence Project, a nonprofit group affiliated with the Cardozo School of Law in New York that has championed the case. “He is clearly refusing to face reality.”
Three independent reviews over the last five years, involving seven of the nation’s top arson experts, found no evidence the fire was set intentionally. The most recent is a report commissioned by the Texas Forensic Science Commission.
The author, renowned arson expert Craig Beylor, blasts the investigators who handled the Willingham case, finding that they misread the evidence and based their conclusions on a “poor understanding of fire science.”
The commission says it is reviewing the Beyler report and other evidence and will issue a conclusion next year.
The fire took place two days before Christmas 1991, and claimed the lives of Willingham’s three daughters: 2-year-old Amber, and 1-year-old twins, Karmon and Kameron.
State fire investigators and Corsicana fire officials maintained that burn patterns, cracked windows and other signs pointed to arson.
Willingham, 24 at the time and an unemployed auto mechanic, had only superficial burns. He said he’d run outside after Amber alerted him to the fire, looking for the others, and couldn’t reenter because the blaze grew so quickly.
He had a criminal record for burglary and grand larceny. He had once beaten his pregnant wife, and a jailhouse snitch said he’d confessed.
At trial, prosecutors told jurors that Willingham had intentionally left his daughters to die in a burning home.
But myriad scientists say that conclusion of arson was based on outdated training that, at the time of trial 15 years ago, had already been replaced by science-based methods that would have pointed to bad wiring or a space heater.
Willingham protested his innocence to the end. Strapped to a gurney awaiting lethal injection on Feb. 17, 2004, he asserted that “I am an innocent man — convicted of a crime I did not do.”
The Board of Pardons and Paroles, appointed by the governor, had rejected the appeal his lawyers had filed three days earlier. Hours before the execution, the lawyers appealed directly to Perry.
The appeal included a report from a widely respected fire expert, Gerald Hurst, that cast serious doubt on the arson finding.
Hurst, a Cambridge-educated chemist who was chief scientist for the nation’s largest explosive manufacturer, says the signs used as proof that an accelerant had been poured were almost certainly the result of “flashover” – an intense heat burst that causes an entire room to erupt in flame.
The effects of flashover can mimic arson.
In 2004, the Chicago Tribune asked three fire experts to evaluate the case. Their testing confirmed Hurst’s report. The case was recently featured in an extensive article in The New Yorker, launching a new round of questions.
Perry, in Washington for a campaign fundraiser today and a speech tomorrow to conservative activists, said during an hour-long session with reporters that he does not believe the state executed an innocent man.
“No,” he said. “We talked about this case at length. One of the most serious and somber things that a governor of Texas deals with is the execution of an individual.… We go through a substantial amount of oversight.”
In 2006, the Innocence Project, using state open records law, obtained records from Perry’s office regarding the last-minute appeal. The governor’s office provided no documents that acknowledged the contents of the appeal or its significance, Scheck’s office said – a “lack of action” that indicates the governor ignored critical analysis.
Perry, whose authority as governor is limited to delaying an execution for 30 days, said he reviewed the case extensively.
“I get a document that has all of the court process. It gives you all of his background, all of the court machinations on the legal side of it, and the recommendation of both my legal side and the courts. It’s pretty extensive amount of information,” he said. “I have not seen anything that would cause me to think that the decision that was made by the courts of the state of Texas was not correct.”
The San Antonio Express-News Editorial Board says that there is “not a shred of evidence” that supports the theory that the fire in the Todd Willingham case was arson, and “the overwhelming evidence is that investigators, prosecutors, court appointed defense attorneys, jury members, appellate judges, the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles and, finally, Gov. Rick Perry failed and Texas executed an innocent man”.
The one argument that gives even
death penalty proponents pause is the prospect that the state might put an innocent person to death. Death penalty cases have multiple layers of appeals and reviews that are intended to avoid such an eventuality. Does that process work?
In recent years, the exoneration with DNA evidence of scores of death row inmates nationwide — including many from Texas — has raised serious questions about the way some death penalty defendants are represented and treated in the criminal justice system. Still, while there have been doubts raised about some cases in which executions have taken place, no one has been able to point to a case where an innocent person was clearly put to death.
That may be about to change. Journalist David Grann, writing in the Sept. 7 issue of the New Yorker magazine, makes a compelling argument that when the state of Texas gave Todd Willingham a lethal injection in 2004, it executed an innocent man.
Willingham was sentenced to death for the murder of his three children by arson. A review of the case by experts finds the determination of arson as the cause of the fire that consumed the Willingham home in Corsicana in 1991 was utterly faulty.
In 2005, Texas created a commission to investigate forensic errors in criminal cases. One of the first cases the Texas Forensic Science Commission reviewed was the Willingham case.
As Grann notes, a fire scientist hired by the commission issued a scathing report. He found that “investigators in the Willingham case had no scientific basis for claiming that the fire was arson, ignored evidence that contradicted their theory, had no comprehension of … fire dynamics, relied on discredited folklore, and failed to eliminate potential accidental or alternative causes of the fire.”
In a letter last month to the Corsicana Daily Sun, state District Judge John H. Jackson Sr., who sent Willingham to death row as a prosecutor, responded to the mounting evidence of a wrongful execution. “The trial testimony you reported in 1991,” he wrote, “contains overwhelming evidence of guilt completely independent of the undeniably flawed forensic report.”
In fact, beyond the forensic evidence that Jackson now acknowledges as being flawed, there’s not a shred of evidence to support the allegation that Willingham or anyone else started the fire that killed his children. Fire experts believe it was caused by a space heater or faulty electrical wiring. In any case, there was certainly no evidence beyond a reasonable doubt to send Willingham to death row.
The overwhelming evidence is that investigators, prosecutors, court appointed defense attorneys, jury members, appellate judges, the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles and, finally, Gov. Rick Perry failed and Texas executed an innocent man.
Society should retain the power to apply the ultimate penalty to its most heinous and dangerous criminals. But with that power comes the ultimate responsibility to ensure that the state does not put innocent people to death. The Todd Willingham case suggests that Texas has failed in that responsibility.