On the same day that Gov. Rick Perry committed what New York’s Innocence Project co-director Barry Scheck called a “Saturday night massacre” by replacing three members of the Texas Forensic Science Commission just two days before the commission was to hear evidence that would have probably proven the State of Texas executed an innocent man in February 2004 under Perry’s watch, the governor formally pardoned James Woodward who spent 29 years in the Texas prison system for a rape he did not commit. Perry’s decision paved the way for Woodward to receive $80,000 for each year he was wrongfully imprisoned plus an annual annuity. The total amount of compensation the State of Texas must pay Woodward totals nearly $4.3 million.
“This couldn’t happen to a more deserving guy,’” Texas Innocence Project’s chief counsel Jeff Blackburn told the media. “He is a remarkable guy who fought his own case, all along, with no one listening to him for 20-some years.”
But Cameron Todd Willingham was not so fortunate. Before his 2004 execution, Willingham’s case had drawn considerable support from the Cambridge-educated chemist and fire expert Gerald Hurst who examined the arson forensic evidence Navarro County officials used to convict Willingham of capital murder in connection with the deaths of his three small children who perished in a 1991 trailer fire in Corsicana and who concluded that the condemned inmate had not deliberately set that fire.
The Hurst forensic findings did not impress Gov. Perry who rejected all attempts by Willingham’s supporters to spare the condemned inmate’s life. The governor had determined there was “clear and convincing evidence” that Willingham murdered his three children even if there was no evidence of arson. The public record has always remained devoid of indication of what this “clear and convincing evidence” was. I have speculated in the past that it was probably the “indictment” itself. An increasing number of death penalty proponents in Texas believe that all it takes is an indictment to establish guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.
After Willingham’s execution before which he had always maintained his steadfast innocence, the Chicago Tribune and the New York-based Innocence Project secured the services of seven nationally-acclaimed fire experts to examine and evaluate the forensic evidence the State relied upon to convict Willingham. All of these experts uniformly concluded the evidence used against Willingham did not meet the minimum standards established by the National Fire Protection Association for such evidence. In effect, these experts concluded the State had relied upon “forensic quackery” to convict Willingham.
In 2005, 18 months after Willingham’s execution, the Texas Legislature establish the Texas Forensic Science Commission in the wake of scandals that rocked the Houston City Police Department’s “crime lab” which revealed that lab technicians had fabricated evidence, rigged test results, and committed perjury to secure criminal convictions for the Harris County District Attorney’s office. Three years later the commission accepted a request from the New York Innocence Project to “investigate” the Willingham case.
This past January the commission retained the service of Craig Beyler, a highly touted fire expert from Maryland, to examine the fire forensic evidence used to convict Willingham. In August Beyler delivered a 51-page report to the commission which essentially said that not only the evidence itself but the procedure used by state fire marshal officials to produce that evidence was so horrifically flawed that there was no way it could be said the fire which killed Willingham’s children was the product of criminal arson.
Commission chairman Sam Bassett, an Austin attorney who has long questioned the validity of Willingham’s conviction, scheduled October 2nd as the date for Beyler to present his findings and conclusions to the full commission. Bassett also informed state fire marshal officials that they would be given an opportunity to rebut these findings and conclusions. That impartial approach did not satisfy Gov. Perry whose aides immediately expressed concerns to Bassett about the impending “investigations” being conducted by the commission. When these official expressions of concern did not deter the commission decision in the Willingham case, Perry reacted unilaterally by replacing Bassett and two other commission members on September 30th which promptly cancelled the October 2nd hearing..
There has been a lot of speculation among the media and death penalty opponents about Perry motives. The governor’s motives are not the real issue. The real issue is the impact of his “Saturday massacre” decision: it once again portrays the State of Texas as an Alamo-frontier state with a lynch law mentality. While the governor may reap certain short term political benefits from the decision, it will have long term consequences on the State of Texas itself and ultimately on the governor’s already marginal political legacy.