THE PLANK OCTOBER 5, 2009
Every time it seems that Texas's application of the death penalty cannot become a greater moral disgrace, officials in the state find a way to outdo themselves. A month ago, I linked to David Grann's exceptional profile of Cameron Todd Willingham--a man put to death in Texas who was almost certainly innocent--and less than two weeks ago, I noted the case of Charles Dean Hood, whose death sentence appeal to the state's highest court was rejected despite proof that the prosecuting attorney and the judge overseeing his case had a long-time (though only recently disclosed) sexual relationship.
Last week brought an update to Grann's story:
[On Wednesday,] the Republican governor of Texas, Rick Perry, abruptly dismissed the chairman and two members of the Texas Forensic Science Commission investigating the execution of Cameron Todd Willingham, which I wrote about last month in The New Yorker. The move came two days before the commission was scheduled to hear crucial evidence that Willingham was put to death, in 2004, based on arson theories that have since been disproven by modern science. The new chairman appointed by Perry promptly postponed Friday’s hearing, when the noted fire scientist Craig Beyler was supposed to testify regarding his findings.
Beyler, who had been hired by the commission to review the original arson investigation, had determined that there was no scientific evidence that Willingham had set the fire that killed his three children, in 1991, and that the original investigators had relied on folklore and methods that defied rational reasoning. Several of the country’s other top fire scientists have reached a similar conclusion.
Perry, who is in a contested campaign for reëlection, had been governor at the time of Willingham’s execution. Before the execution, Willingham’s lawyer had asked Perry to grant a stay based on a report from Dr. Gerald Hurst, a leading fire expert, who had concluded that “there is not a single item of physical evidence in this case which supports a finding of arson.” Willingham’s request, however, was denied.
Perry, of course, claims that the change in personnel was routine, but the outgoing chairman has suggested the obvious: Perry ousted the members of the commission because he was afraid its investigation would find that an innocent man had been put to death on Perry's watch.
In a decent world--or state--Perry's challenger, Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison, would make his interference into an investigation of apparently wrongful execution a centerpiece of her campaign. Alas, this is Texas, where anyone who tries to slow the gears of capital punishment is likely to end up crushed in them.