Crime

Strange Turn in Execution of Possibly Innocent Texas Man

| by Reason Foundation

by Radley Balko

More odd developments in the case of Cameron Todd Willingham, the Texas man executed in 2004 for killing his three daughters by intentionally setting fire to his own house. Nine arson experts have since come forward to denounce the testimony of the forensic arson specialists who testified at Willingham's trial. The latest was commissioned by the Texas Forensic Science Commission, a committee created by the state's legislature to ensure the integrity of forensic evidence presented in court. That report came out at about the same time as an article in the New Yorker presenting a strong case for Willingham's innocence.

Texas Gov. Rick Perry then came under fire earlier this month by refusing to reappoint three members of the Forensic Science Commission at a critical point in its investigation of the Willingham case. Perry had been urged by the committee members and others to reappoint the members so as not to disrupt the Willingham investigation. The investigation is now on hold.

Perry has since replaced a fourth member of the commission. The ousted members are now talking about the pressure Perry's administration put on them to bury any evidence calling Willingham's guilt into doubt.

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From the Houston Chronicle:

The former two-term chairman [of the Forensic Science Commission], Sam Bassett, told the Chronicle that Perry's attorneys suggested the hiring of a nationally known fire expert was a “waste of state money.”

During one conversation, Bassett said, Perry's then-General Counsel David Cabrales told him that the panel's probe of Willingham's case and that of a wrongly convicted El Paso man weren't the kinds of investigations “contemplated by the statute.” Later, Bassett recalled, Cabrales suggested the panel be more forward-looking rather than looking back at older cases.

As the Chronicle article points out, the statute establishing the commission clearly states that the commission is empowered to look at forensic malfeasance in old cases.

It gets even stranger. The Texas blog Dog Canyon reports that Gov. Perry's general counsel at the time of Willingham's execution was himself indicted in an arson case in 2008. David Medina was able to get the indictment dismissed after questioning the judgment of the arson investigators for failing to look at possible causes of the fire other than arson—precisely the criticism leveled at investigators in the Willingham case. The Harris County District Attorney's refusal to bring charges against Medina moved two members of the grand jury that indicted him to speak out publicly against the decision. Medina now sits on the Texas Supreme Court. Perry appointed him to that position in 2004.

It's unclear what role Medina played in Perry's decision to let Willingham be executed. Perry won't release any records related to his administration's handling of the case. Medina's own indictment came a few years after Willingham's execution.

Perry continues to defend Willingham's execution. This week, he described the latest of the nine forensic arson specialist to condemn the evidence presented at Willingham's trial as "politically driven." He also called Willingham a "monster" noting that Willingham was profane, was accused of beating his wife, and was hated even by his own defense attorney.

Meanwhile, at least one juror who voted to convict Willingham now says she's having doubts about her decision.