Tuesday, August 16, 2011

On Rick Perry and the death penalty

On last week's show, I made an off-the-cuff remark that “...Bachmann hasn't killed an innocent person”. I think I should explain myself, as that is a very serious assertion and I don't like to cast unwarranted aspersions.

The event that I was referencing (though I did not state it in the discussion) was the state execution of Cameron Todd Willingham, who was accused, convicted, and eventually executed for killing his children by setting fire to his house while they were inside. I am not going to go through the trial and all of the evidence as there are other pieces written that cover it thoroughly, specifically the big investigative piece by the New Yorker in 2009 (1.).

The case hinges on arson being the cause of the fire: if there is no arson, there is no case. New evidence was presented that called into serious question the conviction on arson and it was ignored by both the governor and the clemency board: they only looked at the trial evidence and refused to take into account new material.

Is that justice? The whole point of having review boards is to make sure that innocent people aren't convicted or, worse, killed. It seems apparent that the so-called checks and balances failed on multiple levels in this instance. Rick Perry claims to have looked at the new evidence- that arson was not, in fact, suspected- and determined that he “didn't see anything that would warrant postponement of the execution.” [2.] New evidence showing that the basic of the case was incorrect, and that's not good enough to allow the guy a stay of execution? Really?! The guy was no saint, but if he didn't murder his children, he shouldn't have been executed. Period.

And now we get to the next stage: the Texas Attorney General is going to stop the investigation into whether the arson ruling was correct because they do not “not have jurisdiction to investigate evidence in cases that occurred before lawmakers created the [Texas Forensic Science Commission] panel in 2005 .” (2.) The reason being “we should be spending much more time focusing upon these modern forensic science issues”. This means no pre-2005 case will be reviewed for flaws and errors. This kind of makes sense on a practical level; however, the Willingham case in particular shows a flaw in the judicial processes and should be reviewed, especially if it would show that a likely innocent person was executed. People make mistakes, and the more important the position, the more likely it is to be a very bad error. However, properly owning up to them is a sign of integrity and honesty; as far as I can tell, Rick Perry is ignoring this mistake and perhaps even trying to actively hide it.

In the end, this isn't just about Governor Perry: there is a larger issue of making sure that if a government is going to remove someone permanently from society, they should be absolutely certain they are correct and in posession of all the facts. That appears to not be the case in this instance. In fact, DNA evidence and new forensic analysis techniques have shown that there are many cases of wrongful imprisonment and executions because the person who was accused didn't have good enough defense, had people in authority hide or manipulate the evidence in order to get a conviction, bad eye witness testimony, and plain bad science, among others (3.). Further, 41 people in Texas alone have been exonerated due to better science techniques (4.). In Willinghams case, it appears he was the victim of at least bad and changing eye witness testimony, bad science, and perhaps over-burdened attorneys. I would also say that he ultimately suffered due to the prejudicial assuredness of Governor Rick Perry that he was guilty.

Cameron Todd Willingham wasn't the nicest guy in the world before he was convicted: he had beaten his wife, had a temper, and commited some crimes. That does not mean, however, that he was also an arsonist and a murderer, nor does that mean that he deserved to be executed because someone at the top didn't like his character. Rick Perry doesn't talk about this case probaably because he feels it was cut and dry: a bad man killed his children and was executed. By ignoring the new analyses (and ignoring the changed testimony of the witnesses), and going only by the original court conviction he is probably correct in thinking so. However, I feel that the new information completely changed the picture of what happened, and feel justified in saying that it is more than likely Rick Perry allowed- through negligence and systemic problems in the appeals and judicial system- a man innocent of his accused crime to be executed.

1. http://www.newyorker.com/reporting/2009/09/07/090907fa_fact_grann

2. http://www.texastribune.org/texas-dept-criminal-justice/cameron-todd-willingham/ag-issues-ruling-forensic-science-jurisdiction/

3. http://www.deathpenaltyinfo.org/causes-wrongful-convictions and related links

4. http://harpers.org/archive/2011/01/hbc-90007895

*Edited to correct Willingham's last name.


  1. I have two issues, with your commentary about whether or not Rick Perry is responsible for the death of an innocent man. The first issue is a minor one but I would be remiss if I didn't mention it. His name was Cameron Todd Willingham - not Williams.

    Secondly, while I do not condone Perry's actions in this matter, for the most part his hands were effectively tied. As governor, he can only grant clemency IF the board of pardons and paroles (By a majority of the members) recommends clemency which can include a full pardon, commutation, emergency medical leaves, etc. He can grant a one time 30 day stay of execution which he FAILED to do as governor.


    Unfortunately, the governor of Texas is much more of a figurehead than a leader. He has the ability to make appointments and since Perry has been in office for ten years now, he has essentially created a posse of willing and loyal followers.


  2. Yeah: I don't know why I wrote Williams: corrected.
    And it's fairly obvious that Perry only gets info that his people give him, which makes them all reprehensible in my eyes. But it was HE who put them in place and therefore he will get the ultimate blame. That's the cost of wanting to be Big Boss.