In the three weeks since Texas Gov. Rick Perry stormed into the 2012 presidential race, bigfooting past the Ames Straw Poll and surging to frontrunner status, the media have flocked to the new entrant like flies to cow manure. Along the way, they’ve asked questions of seeming pertinence. Is Rick Perry too extreme? Is he too religious? Even, is he “too dumb” to be president. The mission, as always, has been to set the horse race narrative first: Mitt Romney, the sort-of-reasonable, eager to please, awkward but electable technocrat, finally gets his foil in the swaggering Texas secessionist.
But one of the essential parts of Perry’s record in Texas involves the executions carried out by the state legal system during his tenure. In a state that’s distinguished itself in the use of capital punishment, the way it was applied under the Perry administration deserves scrutiny. The Texas Tribune calls for such this morning in a piece entitled “Under Perry, Executions Raise Questions.” And one name receives top billing:
As Gov. Rick Perry touts his tough-on-crime policies on the national political stage, the case of Cameron Todd Willingham will continue to be scrutinized. Scientists have raised questions about whether Willingham set the blaze that killed his three daughters and led to his 2004 execution.
Cameron Todd Willingham was convicted in August 1992 for the murder of his three young children in a fire that was deemed an arson by investigators. While on death row, a frantic effort to prove his innocence resulted in a full report which questioned the scientific legitimacy of the evidence used to convict Willingham. That report made its way to Gov. Perry’s office ahead of the zero hour, but it was all for nought — no stay of execution was granted in order to consider the new findings.
Willingham was executed by lethal injection on Feb. 17, 2004. Yet the efforts to exonerate Willingham only intensified, and in 2005, the Texas Forensic Science Commission decided to re-examine the case. The commission hired a nationally known fire scientist, Craig Beyler, to evaluate the evidence, and in his report, he came down on the same side as the scientists who had evaluated the case prior to Willingham’s execution: there was no credible scientific basis for the conclusion that arson had been committed.
Grann’s piece is masterful. It begins by presenting the case made against Willingham by the original arson investigators and prosecutors assigned to the case. Grann presents their brief with great care, and in the best possible light — so much so that by the time you are through the first section, it’s hard to not be convinced that Willingham was guilty of the crime. Then, in the rest of the article, that case is meticulously, ruthlessly torn down as Grann demonstrates that almost no science was brought to bear on the evidence.
It seems that Willingham’s first crime was that he was not a particularly virtuous man. A high school dropout, Willingham was an impoverished knockabout with a rap sheet of petty crimes, a penchant for heavy metal music and a reputation for abusing his wife. It was the birth of his first child, Amber, that seemed to put Willingham back on a path toward something like redemption. Twin girls followed a year later, and Willingham took up domestic responsibilities as his wife, Stacy, tended bar to earn money.
The fire that claimed the lives of the Willingham’s children broke out on the morning of Dec. 23, 1991. Firefighters were called to the scene after residents in the neighborhood noticed the flames, and a frantic, shirtless Willingham on his front porch calling for help. Firefighters had to restrain him several times to keep him from re-entering the house. Willingham would later claim to have been awoken by the fire and his daughters’ calls for help. Unable to reach them, he exited to house to try to get someone’s attention. His wife was out Christmas shopping at the time of the conflagration.
By now, both investigators had a clear vision of what had happened. Someone had poured liquid accelerant throughout the children’s room, even under their beds, then poured some more along the adjoining hallway and out the front door, creating a “fire barrier” that prevented anyone from escaping; similarly, a prosecutor later suggested, the refrigerator in the kitchen had been moved to block the back-door exit. The house, in short, had been deliberately transformed into a death trap.The investigators collected samples of burned materials from the house and sent them to a laboratory that could detect the presence of a liquid accelerant. The lab’s chemist reported that one of the samples contained evidence of “mineral spirits,” a substance that is often found in charcoal-lighter fluid. The sample had been taken by the threshold of the front door.
That Willingham wasn’t held in particularly high regard worked against him once he was formally accused of the murder of his children. Witnesses, who had at the time of the incident recalled his desperate attempts to save his children, began to ascribe darker motives to his actions. Neighbors suggested he was “putting on a show” for their benefit, playing the frantic father in order to mask the fact that he had set fire to his own home, in what was presumably one of the most complicated and dangerous schemes ever conceived to get out of parental custody.
The deal was sealed with testimony from a jailhouse snitch named Johnny Webb, in which he claimed that Willingham had — out of the blue — confessed his guilt to him. (Webb would later attempt to recant his testimony, and allege that his story was purchased in exchange for beneficial treatment.)
As far as what would have motivated Willingham to take the lives of his children, the prosecutors were content to simply rely on the testimony of medical experts, who labelled Willingham a sociopath. After a two-day trial, a conviction was secured. Willingham was offered a life sentence in return for confessing to the crime, but he refused. That’s how he came to be on death row. (As Grann reported, the forensic psychology was flawed as well. Three years after the conclusion of Willingham’s trial, the forensic psychiatrist who worked the case for the prosecution, James Grigson, “was expelled from the American Psychiatric Association” after it came to light that he “had repeatedly arrived at a psychiatric diagnosis without first having examined the individuals in question,” among other ethics violations.)
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