Governor Rick Perry is in no rush to find out if Texas killed an innocent man.
In the middle of a very high profile review of a 1991 fire that resulted in an execution, Governor Rick Perry abruptly removed three members of the investigative panel.
This decision came just two days before the panel was to hear testimony by an expert highly critical of the local investigators’ methods in determining the fire was arson.
The panel’s new leader — described as “one of the most conservative, hard-line prosecutors in Texas” in the Dallas Morning News — said he is unsure if the investigation will continue. At the absolute least, this decision postpones a determination over the most critical of questions: did Texas kill a man for setting a fire that wasn’t an arson at all?
Cameron Todd Willingham was executed in 2004 for starting a fire that caused the death of his three children. He always maintained his innocence, and the case has received national media attention recently due to an investigative article by David Grann in the New Yorker.
The article, long but extremely compelling, reported that several independent arson investigators found there was basically no evidence the fire was arson and questioned the methods of local investigators in Corsicana, population 25,000. (Bob Herbert recently discussed the basic timeline in a NYT op-ed.)
Though the Board of Pardons and Paroles, which reviews clemency applications, had a copy of a report written by one of the country’s foremost fire experts that found there was no arson, they denied Willingham’s petition. A short time later, Governor Perry denied his request for a stay and he was executed.
Fast forward five years and the Texas Forensic Science Commission, in response to a complaint filed by The Innocence Project, is investigating the fire. Renowned fire expert Craig Beyler was set to testify today about his scathing review of the methods the local and state fire investigators in classifying it as arson.
But, seemingly out of nowhere, Gov. Perry replaced three of the panel members, including its head, the Houston Chronicle reported. The new leader, John Bradley, said he did not have enough time to prepare for the hearing and cancelled it. Bradley said he did not know if he would continue the inquiry, the WSJ Law Blog said.
“Those individuals’ terms were up, so we’re replacing them,” Perry said at a news conference. The members’ terms expired September 1, but the chairman had asked to retain his slot, the Dallas Morning News said.
Opinions vary as to Perry’s motives in replacing panelists mid-review. (He’s being “blasted,” the Dallas Morning News said.) But it would be difficult to disagree with the fact that Perry lacks a sense of urgency in getting to the bottom of this.
Capital punishment is politically popular in Texas, but one would expect there would still be serious fall-out – at the very least a revamping of the review process that would require new evidence to actually be reviewed – should it be determined that the state executed someone for a crime that never even happened.
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