Wednesday, 7 October 2009

Death and Texas

The botched trial and execution of Cameron Willingham is another deadly miscarriage of justice, Texas style.

"I am an innocent man - convicted of a crime I did not commit."

Those were the final words of Cameron Willingham, seconds before he was executed by the state of Texas in 2004 for starting the fire in his home that killed his three young children. Willingham maintained his innocence for the 12 years he spent on death row – even refusing a plea-bargain at his 1992 trial that would have meant a life sentence instead of a death sentence.

The final go-ahead for his execution was given by the governor of Texas, Republican Rick Perry, a slick Pierce Brosnan-lookalike who assumed office in 2000, replacing George Bush who was then running for president. But last month it looked like Willingham was coming back to haunt Perry: doubts over his execution had reached fever pitch – an investigation by the Chicago Tribune and a damning article in the New Yorker didn't help – and Texas's Forensic Science Commission (FSC) was tasked with carrying out an official inquiry.

That inquiry found that the key evidence had no basis in modern fire science but then, last Wednesday, Slick Rick announced his decision to remove the head of the commission and two of its investigators. The incoming chairman subsequently cancelled the meeting scheduled to discuss the FSC report.

Perry denied that the changes were intended to quash the investigation, saying: "Those individuals' terms were up, so we're replacing them."

It's Perry's arrogance that really reeks here. Last month, the Dallas Morning News reported him saying: "I'm familiar with the latter-day supposed experts on the arson side of it," adding that he made quotation marks with his fingers to underscore his skepticism.

The question is whether Perry – currently campaigning for a third term as governor in 2010 – can survive, after one of the ousted FSC members described his motives for removing her and her two colleagues as "suspicious" and his opponents in the race for governor have said there should be no interference in the wheels of justice. The heat is most definitely on.

And he should be worried - Texas Republicans now have an alternative for governor in Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison, a moderate who is also calling for the FSC to finish its inquiry. Last month a survey of Republican voters showed Perry falling slightly behind Hutchison. Although she supports the death penalty, Hutchison is targeting centre-right voters: It's a case of baby steps – the last Democratic governor here, Ann Richards, left office in 1995, but Hutchison could be a move in the right direction.

According to a national poll conducted in 2007, the American public are losing confidence in state-sanctioned killing – largely because of the concern about the risk of executing the innocent and about the fairness of the process.

Perry already has blood his hands. In 2002 he signed the death warrant of Napoleon Beazley, one of the last juvenile offenders executed in the United States. Beazley was 17 years old when he shot the father of a federal judge. He admitted his guilt, expressed remorse, and even his trial judge, Cynthia Kent, wrote to Perry asking him to commute his sentence to life in prison. But Perry was unmoved. Then, just three years later the Supreme Court decided it was unconstitutional to execute prisoners who committed their crimes before the age of 18, but it was too late for Beazley.

In June Perry signed his 200th execution warrant, a record surpassing even Bush's 152 (and he was known as the Texecutioner).

Richard Dieter, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Centre in Washington DC told me one of the main problems is Perry's acceptance of Texas's 'rather deficient criminal justice system' - both in the quality of representation and of prosecutorial misconduct. "He has allowed these cases to go forward, continuing with the false assumption that everything is fine."

There is also a large question mark over Texas's handling of scientific evidence: a recent investigation by the Fort Worth Star-Telegram uncovered a series of mistakes by medical examiners here. Two years ago one recanted his original testimony that had helped put a woman, Cathy Lynn Henderson, on death row for murdering a baby. At her original trial he'd said the baby had died from intentional blows. Today he says Henderson could have accidentally dropped the child. How long will it be before Perry signs her death warrant as well?

There is something sinister about the fate of hundreds of death row inmates – some of whom could be innocent – resting in the hands of a man with Perry's record.

Since 1973, 135 people in 26 states have been released from death row with evidence of their innocence. Of these, Texas has released just nine. Does this mean Texas doesn't have as many unsafe convictions as other states? Or is it executing its inmates so quickly that there isn't time to tell?

Tom Schieffer, also running to be governor of Texas next year, on the Democratic ticket, says if a mistake was made in Willingham's case, we should to know about it. "No one in public life should ever be afraid of the truth," he said. If Texans decide that Perry is afraid of the truth, they'll make themselves known at the ballot box next year.


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