This is, with permission, a reprint of a post by Burr Deming of Fair and Unbalanced of Nov. 18. It's taken me a while to get around to this, but I felt it was one of the best expositions of the barbaric institution of capital punishment as it is practiced here in the state of Texas. By the way, Mr. Deming's blog is on "Joe's Hot Links" for those who want to read more.
By Burr Deming
The way he had the man killed, and how he acted later, reminded me of a long ago personal experience.
It was decades back. An elderly relative, one I love dearly, was distraught. Her Social Security check had never arrived. What would she do now? So much for her depended on that check.
Her husband was not a popular character within the family. He was pompous, preening, and had a tendency toward self serving untruth. He enjoyed spending money and forgetting to mention it to his wife. He also had a reputation of having sticky fingers.
He was sullen as I reassured her. The check was probably late. But if it was lost or stolen, she only had to report it. These things happened, and there were procedures.
The only people who had anything to worry about would be anyone who might have taken the check from her mailbox. Stolen government checks are always traced, I said, and thieves are dealt with harshly. If the check was lost a replacement check would be issued. If the check had been stolen, a replacement check would be issued and someone would later be caught and go to jail. She could count on it.
Her hard-to-take husband jumped to his feet in anger. How dare I threaten him with jail ! ! !
When wrong is done, it is often guilty action later that points to culprits. "Consciousness of guilt" is used as evidence of guilt. In some states, fleeing the police qualifies. Trying to cover up a crime can as well.
After the now infamous Susan Smith drowned her two infant children in an attempt to overcome difficulties with her boyfriend, her lawyers tried to argue a variation of an insanity defense. She had been abused as a youngster. She had an unstable childhood. She was not conscious that she was doing anything wrong when she trapped her kids in a car and let it go into a lake.
The insanity defense became pretty much impossible because she had lied about the crime. She maintained that a black man, a stranger, had hijacked her automobile with the kids inside. She tried to cover up her guilt. If she was divorced from reality or did not know it was wrong to kill her children, or was oblivious to what she had done, then why invent a story to keep it a secret? She had demonstrated a consciousness of guilt. And so she now resides at Leath Correctional Institution in South Carolina.
Twenty years ago, Cameron Todd Willingham could have tried to plead insanity. He was convicted of burning up his children near Austin Texas. But he tried to make it seem as if he hadn't committed the crime. Outside the burning home, he acted like a crazy man, fighting to get back to his children, crying, begging firefighters to rescue his family. Local forensic analysts, however, concluded the fire had been set deliberately.
Willingham's contrived emotions outside his home were just part of the clumsy coverup, just like the arson itself. He did not even try a defense of insanity. What was the point? He had demonstrated a consciousness of guilt. So instead, he continued, improbably, to maintain his innocence. He was sentenced to death in 1992.
Death sentences take time and, over the years, cracks appeared in the case. It turned out the forensic analysts didn't really know much about science. One outside fire investigator after another questioned the initial conclusions. The evidence did not support the accusation of arson. Finally, one of the biggest reputations got involved. The case attracted the attention of Dr. Gerald Hurst. He was an Austin fire investigator and a scientist in his own right. He worked the case pro bono.
The case quickly became cut-and-dried. The original findings were based on ignorance and superstition. Assumptions about science that were well known to be wrong at the time were presented as fact. It was the fire science equivalent of witchcraft. Completely predictable effects of electrical faults were needlessly termed suspicious, then conclusive. It was outrageous. Dr. Hurst called it junk science. He sent his report directly to the Governor of Texas.
We have a legal system that, at present, puts severe restrictions on death sentence appeals. Guilt or innocence seldom plays a part. It's all procedural. And there were no discernible procedural errors. The courts rely on a final non-judicial appeal. A governor may issue a pardon or commute a sentence if the judicial system is unable to get close to justice.
Indications are Texas Governor Rick Perry took 4 hours less time looking over the Hurst report than the OJ jury took examining the Los Angeles mountain of evidence. Which is to say zero. He didn't take the time to read it at all.
Cameron Todd Willington's last words before his execution in 2004 was to say once again that he was innocent of killing his children.
In the years after the execution, interest began to balloon. The Hurst report began to make the rounds and it looked devastating. Texas, in particular Rick Perry, had ordered an innocent man executed, ignoring obvious evidence that had been placed in the Governor's hands.
In 2009, a review of the case was ordered by the Texas Forensic Science Commission. Renown scientist Dr. Craig Beyler was put in charge. Governor Perry's ofice insisted there was plenty of evidence to indicate the executed man could be guilty. But as he looked into it, Beyler appeared increasingly skeptical about the evidence, the verdict, and the execution.
Two days before the Texas Forensic Science Commission was to meet and consider Beyler's conclusions, Governor Perry moved in. He fired three of the commissioners, and replaced the chairman. The new chairman cancelled the meeting on the execution.
It was Governor Rick Perry's coverup.
Consciousness of guilt.