Gov Perry Moves to Stall Investigation of Execution of Innocent Man

Megan McArdle links to a post by Publius of Obsidian Wings on Governor Perry’s recent move to slow the investigation into likely miscarriage of justice (due to a faulty arson investigation) which resulted in the execution of Cameron Todd Willingham. This much-discussed New Yorker article makes a fairly solid case that the evidence that Willingham set fire to his own house (resulting in the death of his three daughters) was far from conclusive. Publius says:

In 2005, after the execution, Texas established a commission to investigate forensic errors, and the commission started reviewing the Willingham case. In the course of its review, the commission hired a nationally recognized fire expert who ultimately wrote a “scathing report” concluding that the arson investigation was a joke.

The expert was originally set to testify about his report on Friday, October 2. On Sept. 30, however, Perry suddenly replaced three members of the panel, including the chair, against their wishes. The new chair promptly canceled the hearing. More recently, Perry replaced a fourth member (he can only appoint four — other state officials appoint the remaining five members).

What’s amazing is not so much that Perry replaced the panel members, but that he felt secure enough to be so brazenly corrupt about it. It’s a sad reflection on the state of politics in Texas that a governor could commit such blatant whitewashing two days before the hearing.

Now, further research reveals that Perry’s move is not totally arbitrary. The terms of the people he removed had already expired on Sept. 1st, so he was within his administrative rights to remove them. However, the timing could not be more damning. There is no reason why he could not have allowed the hearing before seeking new appointments, or simply re-appointed the panel members.

Frankly, this should be straight forward. Even for those who strongly support the death penalty (indeed, perhaps especially for them) citizens should have some assurance that the state takes the use of the death penalty with utter seriousness and takes every possible precaution to avoid a permanent and tragic miscarriage of justice. This was clearly the wrong thing for Gov. Perry to do.

15 Responses to Gov Perry Moves to Stall Investigation of Execution of Innocent Man

  1. Agreed. It’s funny: I was strongly pro-death penalty until I read Evangelium Vitae, which — between the strength of the case and the authority of the author — relatively quickly led me to change my mind. Upon further review, I found that my former pro-penalty views conflated justice with vengeance, something which I find common for many (albeit not all) death penalty-supporters today.

  2. Donald R. McClarey says:

    Agreed that Governor Perry was wrong. As to the case itself, after 27 years at the bar, defending accused felons as part of my practice, generally the cases are more complicated than the news media reports. Here is the response of the Chief of the Corsicana Fire Department to the Texas Forensic Science Commission regarding this investigation.

    I normally view media investigations seeking to establish the innocence of someone convicted of a crime with the same skepticism I apply to the prosecution’s case at a trial. Unless I reviewed the trial transcripts I am in no position to judge whether Willingham was wrongfully convicted. I would agree with the article in the New Yorker that jailhouse snitch testimony is worthless. The saving grace is that normally a competent defense attorney can filet the snitch in cross examination and, in my experience, juries usually heavily discount such testimony.

  3. Micha Elyi says:

    #1 The headline of this article is misleading.

    #2 Even for those who strongly support the driving privilege (indeed, perhaps especially for them) citizens should have some assurance that the state takes the use of the driving privilege with utter seriousness and takes every possible precaution to avoid a permanent and tragic miscarriage of safety. One “possible precaution” is to ban automobile use. I’m sure the advocates of taking “every possible precaution” will give up their cars.

  4. Dudley Sharp says:

    Mr. McClarey:

    Stick by your reading the transcripts. The state contends that the snitch was unaware of the X pattern in the children’s bedroom yet he testified that Willingham told him he poured the accelerant in an X pattern.

    Some more:

    1) “Cameron Todd Willingham: Media Meltdown & the Death Penalty:
    “Trial by Fire: Did Texas execute an innocent man?”, by David Grann–the-death-penalty.aspx

    As more reality comes to light, the more into disrepute run’s Grann’s article.

    Myarticle, above, was written and released prior to the Corsicana Fire Marshall’s report, below

    2) EXCLUSIVE: City report on arson probe:
    State panel asks for city response in Willingham case

    3) No Doubts

    For a collection of articles, go to:

    Corsicana Daily Sun, The Willingham Files

    OTHER REPORTS: There is the potential for, at least, 3 more, official, reports on this case: the Texas Fire Marshall’s office, which will give an official and requested reply, the Corsicana Police Dept. and Navarro County District Attorney’s office, both of which, I speculate, may only contribute to the TFM report, but could issue their own reports.

    There is an official “report” which, it appears, few have paid attention to – the trial transcript.

    I find that rather important because, at least six persons, who were involved with the trial, two prosecutors, the defense attorney, two surviving fire investigators and a juror have all voiced support for the verdict, still, in the light of the criticism of the arson forensics.

    One of those original fire investigators is, now, an active certified arson expert.

  5. Just to clarify: I don’t consider the death penalty itself to be unjust, and I’m not strongly persuaded by the suggestion that it’s not needed to protect society in the modern world. I am, however, a bit ambivalent towards capital punishment as it exists in the US in that it seems to me there’s little value of either justice or protection to society in executing someone 15-20 years after the crime, which is what seems to be standard.


    The part of the New Yorker article I found fairly convincing was down in section IV where it talks about Dr. Hurst’s work on arson and overturning of assumptions in other cases that certain burn patterns could only be left by arson.

    Now, maybe I’m overly open to “expert testimony” of an experimental sort, but given that his findings had been used in a several similar cases to establish reasonable doubt, it seems to me like it would have been worth at least putting things on hold while looking into the question. I’m not thoroughly convinced the guy was an upstanding citizen, or anything, but it sounds like there were at least serious questions about the assumptions being used (reasonably enough, because they were standard in the industry) by the arson investigators at the time. And if the article is fully accurate on the arson, I’d be pretty confident the guy was probably innocent.

    That said, I think the vast majority of stuff put out by anti-capital punishment groups in an attempt to prove innocence is so clearly bunk (and transparant bunk at that) that one of the factors here may have been that a few people in the Texas justice system has simply stopped paying much attention to information presented on behalf of people on death row. That might be understandable in a sense, but it’s also a major problem.


    Are you trying to argue that the state _shouldn’t_ make every effort to make sure it only executes guilty people? Really?

  6. DC: I certainly agree that the death penalty is not *inherently* unjust (that’s our faith’s teaching), but I disagree that we need the death penalty to protect society, at least in developed countries wherein prison technology keeps the most dangerous away from society. There might be the occasional exception, but in the vast majority of cases, I don’t see how the application of the death penalty *in our country* is needed to protect society.

  7. Tom says:

    Not only does our faith teach that the death penalty is not inherently unjust, the unbroken tradition of the Church stretching back to the Old Testament is that the death penalty is in fact sometimes a necessary penalty. Because the “moral equilibrium” upset by the crime of murder cannot be righted by any penalty short of death, the common teaching of the Church has always been that both natural and Divine justice require this penalty.

    Even today, under the Catechism’s far more negative treatment of capital punishment, acknowledgement is made that this penalty is sometimes necessary in order to defend the community, and should occur “rarely” only when certain advancements have occured which might render offenders harmless– advancements that have not yet occured, at least in this country, where no reliable methods exist (consonant with our Constitution) to render offenders harmless.

    Any view of capital punishment that denies or disparages the fundamental duty and right of the state to execute certain offenders is closer to the heresy of Waldensianism than to Catholic orthodoxy.

  8. Tom says:

    Here are but a few of the many examples showing that we do not in fact have the ability to render offenders harmless:
    Nor is it all clear what the Catechism was referring to when it mentioned “the possibilities which the state has for effectively preventing crime, by rendering one who has committed an offense incapable of doing harm.”

    Moreover, since we execute only a tiny fraction of murderers (1/4 of 1%), after fair trials and extensive and thorough appeals on many levels, it can confidently be said that in fact we only execute offenders “rarely.”

  9. Tom, we do have the ability to render offenders harmless: supermax prisons come to mind.

    As to moral equilibrium, I think you overstate your case: the Magisterium has never said that anyone guilty of murder must be put to death for justice’s sake. More broadly, the Catholic doctrine of justice has never said that punishment ought to be of the same nature as the offense, and no society with Christian roots that I’m aware of thought of or practiced such a notion of justice (we don’t steal from thieves).

  10. Dudley Sharp says:

    I cover the Catholic support for the death penalty above, as well as a review of Gerald’s Hurst’s interview.

    It is arguable that Pope John Paul II made numerous errors in EV and that such were just transferred into the Cathechism.

  11. Tom says:

    The Church’s solid and perennial teaching has been that the death penalty is in accord with natural and Divine justice, and that states have a right and even a duty to use this penalty.

    No one said that every murder has to be punished with death, only that the state acts justly and well, and not deficiently, when it executes someone convicted of murder. With all due respect, classical notions of justice, embraced by the Church for two millenia, ratify the principle that the moral harm done by murder is generally only fully repaired by what moralists call the “congruent satisfaction” of capital punishment.

    Abolitionism or squeamishness about this penalty does not respect life but in fact cheapens it by lessening the punishment that most closely fits the offense. If you want the long list of citations from Scripture, from the Church Fathers, from the Schoolmen, from the Popes, I can do that for you, but I suspect a smart guy like you probably knows that the Church has always not just tolerated, but blessed the practice of capital punishment.

    As to supermaxes, anyone familiar with these places can tell you that escapes occur, inmates murder or seriously injure each other and the guards; parole rules and executive pardons can result in the release of these offenders years after they are “safely locked away.”

    In any event, it clearly rests with the informed judgment of the civil authorities as to whether an offender is a threat to kill or harm again. In those cases, executions do not contravene even the Catechism’s ambiguous teaching.

  12. Tom, I agree with your first ‘graph wholeheartedly.

    I think I need some clarity regarding your views on the appropriate punishment for murder. Previously you stated that “the ‘moral equilibrium’ upset by the crime of murder cannot be righted by any penalty short of death” mean that the death penalty is *required* for murder? I doubt that’s what you meant, which is why I opined that you overstated your case.

    But you seem to both deny & affirm that that’s your meaning in your latest comment when you write, “No one said that every murder has to be punished with death” but then proceed later to add, “the moral harm done by murder is generally only fully repaired by what moralists call the “congruent satisfaction” of capital punishment.” Can you clarify for me? Do you simply mean that *most* murders are appropriately punished by death, but not all? Or something else?

    Regarding supermaxes, I’m not familiar with an successful escapes… I’m guessing that you are, though. Link or reference?

  13. Mike Petrik says:

    When determining the efficacy of prisons rendering offenders harmless, one must take into account (i) the ability of offenders to commit murders while in prison, either by directly murdering guards or fellow “guests” or indirectly doing such or murdering those outside the prison via order. While I generally oppose the death penalty, there may be instances that may still be warranted to protect others.

  14. dudleysharp says:

    The Catechism provides little time for justice, which must dominate the utilitarian aspect of protection.

    “While punishment does serve the purpose of protecting society, it also and primarily serves the function of manifesting the transcendent, divine order of justice–an order which the state executes by divine delegation.” ” . . . it may be argued that such a conception of punishment, rooted in the restoration of moral balance, always presupposes an awareness of the superordinate dignity of the common good as defined by transcendent moral truths.” (5)

    “Yet the presence of two purposes–retributive and medicinal justice–ought not obscure the priority of assigning punishment proportionate to the crime (just retribution) insofar as the limited jurisdiction of human justice allows. The end is not punishment, but rather the manifestation of a divine norm of retributive justice, which entails proportionate equality vis-à-vis the crime.” “The medicinal goal is not tantamount merely to stopping future evildoing, but rather entails manifesting the truth of the divine order of justice both to the criminal and to society at large. This means that mere stopping of further disorder is insufficient to constitute the full medicinal character of justice, which purpose alike and primarily entails the manifestation of the truth. Thus this foundational sense of the medicinality of penalty is retained even when others drop away.” (6)

    5) “Evangelium Vitae, St. Thomas Aquinas and the Death Penalty”, p 519, Steven A. Long, The Thomist, 63 (1999): 511-552

    6) ibid, p 522

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