By Manifesto Joe
If it were possible that your state had executed an innocent man, it would make sense to keep the same people on the main panel that's investigating the matter. Wouldn't it? But alas, this is Texas. And our governor is Rick "Governor Goodhair" Perry.
By now, it isn't news that at the end of last month, Perry decided to clean house at the Texas Forensic Science Commission, just two days before the commission was to examine a report challenging the arson findings that resulted in the state's 2004 execution of Cameron Todd Willingham.
The news now is what has come out since then. But first, here's the background.
Perry's decision to remove Chairman Sam Bassett and commission members Alan Levy and Aliece Watts (who happens to be a forensic scientist) was announced Sept. 30. The three quickly questioned the governor's motives -- he was in office at the time Willingham was executed, and he's running for re-election next year. They also said that the commission's investigation could be slowed by the governor's actions.
The case stemmed from a 1991 fire at Willingham's Corsicana home. His three daughters died in the fire, and Willingham was charged with capital murder, as the fires were believed to be arson. Willingham said he was asleep in the house when the fire started, and denied that it was arson.
The Willingham case had become a kind of cause celebre for death penalty opponents and advocates for clearing wrongfully convicted inmates. Barry Scheck, co-director of the Innocence Project, called Perry's actions "troubling" and compared them to "the Saturday night massacre," when in 1973 President Nixon fired a special prosecutor during the Watergate scandal.
The nine-member commission had agreed last year to review the case after defense attorneys said Willingham was convicted on flawed scientific evidence. Craig Beyler, an expert on fire investigation, was hired and submitted a report in August saying that he could not fully support a finding of arson.
Perry and his spokespeople have repeatedly told news media that the timing was nothing out of the ordinary. The removed members' terms officially ended Sept. 1, and Perry has kept saying it would have been business as usual to replace them anyway.
Then, on Oct. 9, Perry removed a fourth member, Sridhar Natarajan, a Lubbock medical examiner. Two appointments were announced the same day.
Now we have the latest development.
Former Chairman Says He Was Pressured
Bassett now says that Perry's office called him into meetings twice, during February and March, and that he was told by Perry's top lawyers that the Willingham case was not the kind of work the Legislature had intended the commission to do, that the case should be given a low priority in lieu of higher concerns, and so forth.
Here's a link to the full story, from the Chicago Tribune with contributions from the Fort Worth Star-Telegram.
If it weren't already obvious, Governor Goodhair doesn't want any more people to know that he may have Cameron Willingham's blood on his hands. That could be very damaging in a re-election campaign, especially since Perry was approached in February 2004, just days before the execution, about possibly flawed scientific evidence in the case. The execution went on as scheduled.
Perry has presided over the Texas Death Row killing machine for nearly nine years. Over 200 inmates have been executed since he took office. I know of one instance in which he commuted a death sentence, and in 2004 he defied the pardons and parole board's recommendation of clemency in one case.
Is Perry really more concerned about his own political career than about the possibility that he allowed an innocent man, and perhaps more than one over the years, to die by lethal injection? You be the judge. It looks pretty clear to me.
Manifesto Joe Is An Underground Writer Living In Texas.