Opinion: Cameron Todd Willingham’s ghost won’t stop haunting Rick Perry

Texas Gov. Rick Perry.
(Eric Gay / Associated Press)

Rick Perry’s Cameron Todd Willingham problem won’t go away. In fact, it got worse this week.

Until recently, much of the outrage over the killing of Willingham — the convicted murderer-arsonist who was very likely innocent but executed by Texas anyway in 2004 — has been over the state’s and Gov. Rick Perry’s conduct after Willingham was sent to death row in 1992 for setting the fire that killed his three children. Perry wasn’t governor during Willingham’s prosecution, which relied heavily on the testimony of a jailhouse informant and forensic evidence produced by arson investigators. But he was governor in 2004, when a noted arson expert and scientist sent him a report concluding there was no evidence that the fire was set intentionally and that the evidence used to convict Willingham amounted to “junk science.”

Despite the report, Perry refused to grant a stay, and Willingham was put to death by lethal injection on Feb. 17, 2004. Five years later, with a Texas commission working inexorably toward a formal acknowledgment that the state had executed an innocent man — surely a watershed in the history of American capital punishment — Perry pulled a bureaucratic maneuver that effectively stopped the investigation in its tracks.

(The seminal work of journalism on this subject appeared in the New Yorker in 2009. It’s a depressing tale of Texas’ total indifference to the truth once Willingham landed on death row.)

When Perry first ran for president in 2011, there were a few grumblings among pundits (myself included) about the Willingham case and what it said about Perry’s ability to govern. Back then, I wrote that “Texas may let Perry off the hook” for executing an innocent man but the “rest of the nation may not be so forgiving.” How wrong (or naive) I was: Perry’s campaign drew more attention for his memory slips and bizarre behavior than anything he did as governor of Texas. It seemed as if Perry — and Texas — had shaken off Willingham’s ghost.


Comes now a new report by the Washington Post that thoroughly discredits the final remaining piece of evidence used to convict Willingham: testimony by jailhouse informant Johnny Webb, who had said Willingham admitted his guilt while behind bars. The prosecutor who secured Willingham’s conviction had insisted that he made no deal to persuade the informant to testify. But, according to a lengthy paper trail and the informant himself, Webb was indeed coaxed to testify against Willingham.

We already knew the deck was stacked against Willingham after his conviction; what the Post’s chilling report reveals is that the fix was in beforehand. None of the evidence used to send Willingham to the lethal injection gurney was credible; the longer Perry and his state continue to deny this, the more the case against Willingham will continue to unravel without their help.

Perry is not running for reelection as governor of Texas, raising the likelihood that he’s preparing a 2016 campaign for the White House. Judging by his finger-in-the-ears reaction to the questions over Willingham’s guilt so far, either Perry is amorally unconcerned about sending an innocent man to his death, or he’s so unsettled by the implications of a posthumous exoneration that he resorts to denial in the face of overwhelming evidence. I hope it’s the latter, which at least leaves open the possibility that some prolonged media exposure in parts of the country less at ease with capital punishment — and disgusted by the botched killings of late that have soiled lethal injection’s sterility — might make Perry’s candidacy historic in ways he never intended.

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