Gov. Perry’s enduring stain

By Stephen Saloom

gov-rick-perryAs his term ends, Gov. Perry’s legacy will be greatly debated. His supporters will say he was a great conservative, upholder of morality and master of political control. His detractors will examine the other sides of those coins. There is room for great debate.

One thing, however, cannot be debated. Perry wrongly affirmed Texas’ killing of an innocent man, Cameron Todd Willingham.

What’s worse is that when evidence of his error emerged from various corners, he ignored it – and at times, actively sought to suppress it.

As we consider Perry’s legacy, and his qualities as a candidate for higher office, this major element of his tenure must be considered.

The wrongful conviction and execution of Willingham began with a fire that broke out while he and his little girls were asleep. He woke up amidst flames and ran out — then realized that his three little girls were trapped inside. They died.

Arson investigators concluded that the fire had been set. A jailhouse informant said Willingham confided that he intentionally killed his children. Willingham’s defense lawyer was unable — and potentially even uninterested — to meet the challenge.

Willingham was convicted and sentenced to death.

Appellate courts found no legal errors. Before the execution date, however, the Willingham family learned of scientific evidence disproving the arson evidence and directed this new evidence to the Governor. He heads the clemency process, which is meant to be the fail-safe against such injustices.

The Willinghams sought a temporary reprieve from the execution. It was based on the report of one of the world’s top fire scientists (a Texan, no less), which explained why the arson evidence used was completely unreliable. The Willinghams informed Perry’s staff about the report and their impending request for a temporary reprieve to enable close scrutiny of that now-questioned evidence.

Perry received the expert with plenty of time and justification to grant a temporary reprieve — but he chose not to. Willingham was executed.

Public questions began to arise. There was a comparison of the Texas court’s handling of Willingham’s arson/murder conviction versus that of Ernest Willis, who had been convicted and sentenced to death in an arson case strikingly similar to that of Willingham. In Willis’ case, however, when the prosecutor learned of the new arson science, he moved to vacate the conviction. Because that evidence was recognized in his case, Willis was declared innocent and lives today.

The radically different dispositions in these similar arson cases gave rise to a review by the Texas Forensic Science Commission, which, in light of today’s science, found it “untenable” to support arson findings based on such evidence.

In fact, the Texas Fire Marshal is now investigating past arson cases, and Attorney General Greg Abbott affirmed their propriety. On a related note, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals recently affirmed the Texas Legislature’s new law, which allows courts to reconsider discredited forensic evidence.

The arson evidence against Willingham was undeniably misleading. The only other “evidence” of Willingham’s guilt was jailhouse snitch testimony. The informant has now – again – said that his evidence was a lie, offered only because he had been (secretly) promised leniency. Prosecutorial misconduct has now been claimed.

Mr. Willingham’s innocence has now been well established. Since Mr. Willingham has already been executed, however, it is not the courts but Perry — and the Board of Pardons and Paroles he politically controls — who have the unique power to clear his name.

When presented with an application for that pardon, however, Perry refused to accept a visit from the surviving family members, who have politely but steadfastly sought justice for decades. Perry’s board’s denial of pardon was unexplained, yet conveniently spared him from having to act on it.

As his tenure came to a close, Perry had a clear opportunity to enable the pardon of Willingham. Instead he spun on his heel and walked away, refusing to acknowledge in any way his government’s terrible wrong.

Perry claims to be a conservative, religious and moral leader. As we consider his legacy, however, and his potential fitness for higher office, we must soberly assess his role in this injustice that he uniquely perpetuated.

Saloom is former policy director at the Innocence Project.

 Originally published 1/3/15 in the Austin American-Stateseman


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