05 October 2009

Texas executes innocent man; governor impedes investigation

We recently learned that the State of Texas probably executed an innocent man.

Cameron Todd Willingham was executed in 2004 for an alleged arson that claimed the lives of his three daughters in 1991. However, a recent forensic review of the case led to the conclusion that "a finding of arson could not be sustained." In other words, the fire for which Willingham was executed was probably just an accident.

This travesty of justice led reporter David Grann to write an excellent in-depth article about the case, which appeared in the September 7th edition of New Yorker and can be found online here.

So now a reasonable person might assume that Texas would learn a lesson from this mistake, further investigate what went wrong and how, and implement safeguards to prevent this sort of thing from happening again.

Unfortunately, that reasonable person might be wrong.

Last week, Texas Governor Rick Perry abruptly removed three members of the Texas Forensic Science Commission -- including the commission's chairman -- just two days before they were to meet to review the evidence that Willingham was innocent. The new chairman -- a prosecutor who has now replaced a defense attorney on the commission -- canceled the hearing for the time being.

Perry, who maintains that Willingham was guilty, defended the move by saying that "[t]hose individuals' terms were up, so we replaced them."

Nevertheless, I contend that the abruptness of their dismissal appears a bit suspicious. And apparently I'm not the only one who thinks so:
"This looks an awful lot like a governor who's interfering with a science commission because the science demonstrated that we've executed an innocent person."
-- Keith Hampton, Austin Criminal Defense Lawyers Association

"On Friday, the Commission was supposed to consider the expert's report, which strongly indicates that the arson evidence underlying Willingham's conviction and execution was completely unreliable and would raise serious concerns that Texas has executed this innocent person. Rather than let this important hearing go forward and the report be heard, the Governor fires the independent Chairman and two other members of this Commission. It's like Nixon firing Archibald Cox to avoid turning over the Watergate tapes."
-- Barry Scheck, Co-Director, The Innocence Project
And others are speculating that the move may have been engineered in order to delay the commission's findings which might present a challenge to Governor Perry's upcoming reelection bid.

It appears to me that the burden of proof is now on Governor Perry to ensure that the investigation will proceed in a timely and unbiased manner, and that concrete steps will be taken to reduce the likelihood that other Texas death row prisoners will be executed for crimes they did not commit.

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