Texas Gov. Rick Perry’s death penalty debacle

Texas Gov. Rick Perry refused to stay the execution of Cameron Todd Willingham despite strong evidence of innocence, and later blocked a probe of the case's forensic flaws.
(Ben Torres / Associated Press)

Gov. Rick Perry is the kind of politician many Texans seem to like: straight-talking, rigidly Christian, a bedrock conservative. His Lone Star State popularity apparently deluded him into believing he’d have a shot at national glory, yet when the rest of the country got a close look at him during his run for the GOP presidential nomination, it became clear that all wasn’t quite right with the leather-faced former cotton farmer. It wasn’t just his frequent gaffes and memory lapses; it was that at key times he didn’t seem quite all there mentally, such as during a debate in Orlando, Fla., when his speech was so slurred that pundits questioned whether he had suffered a stroke or had been drinking beforehand.

Perry’s popularity dipped at home after he dropped out of the race, but something else lurking in his past could cause worse than a downturn in his poll numbers. Perry, it turns out, not only stood by while his state’s executioners took the life of a man widely believed by forensics scientists to have been innocent, he later acted to prevent evidence of that innocence from seeing the light of day. He oversees a state whose procedures for reviewing inmate appeals are a national disgrace and that may, if the case of Cameron Todd Willingham is ever given a fair hearing, prove to be the home of the first execution of a factually and legally innocent person since the advent of the modern judicial system.

Willingham was convicted in 1992 of setting an arson fire that killed his three young daughters based on the testimony of witnesses, including a jailhouse informant who claimed Willingham confessed to setting the fire, and a pair of veteran fire investigators. As the New Yorker chronicled in an extensive 2009 article about the Willingham case, when a pen pal of the inmate’s named Elizabeth Gilbert began investigating in 1999, she discovered numerous holes in witnesses’ statements; a few months after a visit from Gilbert, the jailhouse informant who was the prosection’s key witness sent a Motion to Recant Testimony to the prosecuting attorney asserting that Willingham was innocent. But it was the later discovery that the work of fire investigators had been based on outdated and unscientific methods that should have saved Willingham from the death chamber. Anywhere but Texas, it probably would have.


In January 2004, the New Yorker reported, Gilbert contacted Gerald Hurst, a brilliant inventor and renowned scientist and fire investigator, and sent him the files on the Willingham probe. Hurst quickly discovered that the Texas investigators had ignored scientific findings on ways to recognize arson fires, and he penned a report demonstrating that every piece of evidence they had interpreted to be the result of a purposefully set fire using an accelerant would be more likely to have occurred in a naturally occurring blaze. Even the most damning evidence against Willingham -- a chemical test had found traces of a chemical accelerant near the front door -- was found to have an explanation that pointed away from arson. Photos taken before the fire showed a barbecue grill on the front porch near the door, and witnesses testified that the grill and a can of lighter fluid had burned up in the fire. Backwash from fire hoses could easily have washed the lighter fluid onto the boards in the front stoop.

Hurst’s file, after being confirmed by a second fire expert, was sent to the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles. On Feb. 13, 2004, it rejected clemency for Willingham. It’s not clear whether any member of the board, a rubber-stamp death panel that meets in secret and sends in its rulings by fax, ever read the report. Willingham was executed on Feb. 17 after Perry, despite ample new evidence of innocence, refused to grant a stay.

Fast-forward to 2009. A public outcry over the Willingham case had helped prompt the formation of the Texas Forensic Science Commission, which hired a top fire expert named Craig Beyler of Hughes Associates to investigate the case. Like Hurst, Beyler was ruthlessly critical of the work of the original investigators and produced a withering report disputing their findings. Yet when the commission prepared to meet to discuss his report, Perry’s top attorneys began questioning Beyler’s hiring and the cost of the probe. Finally, just two days before the meeting was scheduled, Perry replaced the chairman and two other board members, and the new chair immediately canceled the meeting.

Unfortunately for Perry, his attempts to thwart the investigation haven’t entirely succeeded. Willingham’s family has petitioned the Board of Pardons and Parole to hold a public hearing and, possibly, issue the executed man a posthumous pardon. Since this is the same board that refused to delay Willingham’s execution in the face of strong evidence of innocence, it’s hard to work up much optimism for a fair result. But the pressure on Perry and other Texas officials is building. In January, the Texas fire marshall will convene an expert panel to review suspect arson cases, presumably including Willingham’s.

Perry can stall and dance, but eventually the truth will out. If the vampire from Paint Creek is still in office when that happens, that should put him out.



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