Friday, September 18, 2009

Governor Rick Perry Finally Speaks: Defends Execution of Todd Willingham

The Dallas Morning News is the first to get Governor Rick Perry to speak publicly about the wrongful execution of Todd Willingham. No surprise from Perry. He rejects the scientific analysis and thinks Willingham was guilty. It is time for the people of Texas to elect a new governor. Perry has several opponents in the Republican primary and if he survives the primary, he will face the winner of the Democratic primary in November 2010.

Sign the petition to Governor Rick Perry and the State of Texas to acknowledge that the fire in the Cameron Todd Willingham case was not arson, therefore no crime was committed and on February 17, 2004, Texas executed an innocent man.

From the DMN:

Governor Rick Perry today strenuously defended the execution of a Corsicana man whose conviction for killing his daughters in a house fire hinged on an arson finding that top experts call junk science.

“I’m familiar with the latter-day supposed experts on the arson side of it,” Perry said, making quotation marks with his fingers to underscore his skepticism.

Even without proof that the fire was arson, he added, the court records he reviewed before the execution of Cameron Todd Willingham in 2004 showed “clear and compelling, overwhelming evidence that he was in fact the murderer of his children.”

These were the governor’s first direct comments on a case that has drawn withering criticism from top fire experts.

Death penalty critics view the Willingham case as a study in shoddy – or at least outdated – science, and they consider it the first proven instance in 35 years of an executed man being proven innocent after death.

“Governor Perry refuses to face the fact that Texas executed an innocent man on his watch. Literally all of the evidence that was used to convict Willingham has been disproven – all of it,” said Barry Scheck, co-director of the Innocence Project, a nonprofit group affiliated with the Cardozo School of Law in New York that has championed the case. “He is clearly refusing to face reality.”

Three independent reviews over the last five years, involving seven of the nation’s top arson experts, found no evidence the fire was set intentionally. The most recent is a report commissioned by the Texas Forensic Science Commission.

The author, renowned arson expert Craig Beylor, blasts the investigators who handled the Willingham case, finding that they misread the evidence and based their conclusions on a “poor understanding of fire science.”

The commission says it is reviewing the Beyler report and other evidence and will issue a conclusion next year.

The fire took place two days before Christmas 1991, and claimed the lives of Willingham’s three daughters: 2-year-old Amber, and 1-year-old twins, Karmon and Kameron.

State fire investigators and Corsicana fire officials maintained that burn patterns, cracked windows and other signs pointed to arson.

Willingham, 24 at the time and an unemployed auto mechanic, had only superficial burns. He said he’d run outside after Amber alerted him to the fire, looking for the others, and couldn’t reenter because the blaze grew so quickly.

He had a criminal record for burglary and grand larceny. He had once beaten his pregnant wife, and a jailhouse snitch said he’d confessed.

At trial, prosecutors told jurors that Willingham had intentionally left his daughters to die in a burning home.

But myriad scientists say that conclusion of arson was based on outdated training that, at the time of trial 15 years ago, had already been replaced by science-based methods that would have pointed to bad wiring or a space heater.

Willingham protested his innocence to the end. Strapped to a gurney awaiting lethal injection on Feb. 17, 2004, he asserted that “I am an innocent man -- convicted of a crime I did not do.”

The Board of Pardons and Paroles, appointed by the governor, had rejected the appeal his lawyers had filed three days earlier. Hours before the execution, the lawyers appealed directly to Perry.

The appeal included a report from a widely respected fire expert, Gerald Hurst, that cast serious doubt on the arson finding.

Hurst, a Cambridge-educated chemist who was chief scientist for the nation's largest explosive manufacturer, says the signs used as proof that an accelerant had been poured were almost certainly the result of “flashover” – an intense heat burst that causes an entire room to erupt in flame.

The effects of flashover can mimic arson.

In 2004, the Chicago Tribune asked three fire experts to evaluate the case. Their testing confirmed Hurst's report. The case was recently featured in an extensive article in The New Yorker, launching a new round of questions.

Perry, in Washington for a campaign fundraiser today and a speech tomorrow to conservative activists, said during an hour-long session with reporters that he does not believe the state executed an innocent man.

“No,” he said. “We talked about this case at length. One of the most serious and somber things that a governor of Texas deals with is the execution of an individual.… We go through a substantial amount of oversight.”

In 2006, the Innocence Project, using state open records law, obtained records from Perry’s office regarding the last-minute appeal. The governor’s office provided no documents that acknowledged the contents of the appeal or its significance, Scheck’s office said – a “lack of action” that indicates the governor ignored critical analysis.

Perry, whose authority as governor is limited to delaying an execution for 30 days, said he reviewed the case extensively.

“I get a document that has all of the court process. It gives you all of his background, all of the court machinations on the legal side of it, and the recommendation of both my legal side and the courts. It’s pretty extensive amount of information,” he said. “I have not seen anything that would cause me to think that the decision that was made by the courts of the state of Texas was not correct.”

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