It’s lucky for Gov. Rick Perry of Texas that he’s not suspected of doing something truly shocking, like having an affair. Instead, it merely seems that he’s helped cover up a homicide. Apparently that’s not enough to make much of a national splash.
Last month, The New Yorker published a remarkable piece by David Grann about the case of Cameron Todd Willingham, who was executed in 2004 for a crime that all the evidence suggests he didn’t commit. In 1991, Willingham’s house caught on fire, burning his three daughters to death. Ill-trained investigators accused Willingham of arson. At his trial, a family therapist who had never met Willingham was called as an expert witness and suggested that Willingham’s heavy metal posters indicated that he might be a satanist.
Because Willingham couldn’t afford decent representation, it was many years before a friend of his managed to get qualified experts to take a look at the case. Grann described the investigation conducted by Gerald Hurst, one of the country’s most acclaimed fire investigators: "Hurst concluded that there was no evidence of arson, and that a man who had already lost his three children and spent twelve years in jail was about to be executed based on ‘junk science.’" If Perry read the report, which was submitted just weeks before Willingham was executed, he didn’t act on it, refusing to grant a stay of execution.
Grann wasn’t the first to probe the Willingham case. Ten months after Willingham was put to death, The Chicago Tribune published an important investigation by Steve Mills and Maurice Possley. Willingham, they wrote, "was prosecuted and convicted based primarily on arson theories that have since been repudiated by scientific advances. According to four fire experts consulted by the Tribune, the original investigation was flawed and it is even possible the fire was accidental."
In 2005, the Texas Legislature established a nine-member Forensic Science Commission, which immediately started looking into Willingham’s case, as well as the case of Ernest Ray Willis. Willis had also been sentenced to death in an arson case that Grann described as "freakishly similar" to Willingham’s, but thanks largely to a good pro-bono attorney, he was set free after 17 years in prison. The Forensic Science Commission voted unanimously to hire Craig Beyler, another well-known arson expert, to write a report. Beyler submitted it in August, and it was a profoundly damning document.
The approach of Manuel Vasquez, the state deputy fire marshal in Willingham’s case, was "hardly consistent with a scientific mindset and is more characteristic of mystics or psychics," Beyler wrote. In both the Willingham and the Willis case, the "investigators had poor understandings of fire science and failed to acknowledge or apply the contemporaneous understanding of the limitations of fire indicators. Their methodologies did not comport with the scientific method or the process of elimination."
A consensus was emerging that, under Perry’s watch, Texas had executed an innocent man. Beyler was supposed to testify before the Forensic Science Commission on Oct. 2. But three days before, Perry abruptly fired three commissioners, replacing the chairman with John Bradley, a conservative prosecutor. Texas newspapers described it as a "Saturday night massacre." Just over a week later, Perry replaced a fourth commissioner. The former chairman told the Chicago Tribune that the governor had tried to pressure him and that his lawyers expressed unhappiness over the way the investigation was going.
It’s likely that the investigation will now become more amenable to Perry. According to The Houston Chronicle, the new chairman claims that Beyler has "harmed his credibility as an unbiased forensic scientist" by publicly objecting to the shakeup, seemingly laying the groundwork to write off his findings. Indeed, like creationists at a school board meeting, Perry and his allies are heaping scorn on the many scientists who’ve weighted in on the case. The governor has derided them as "latter-day supposed experts."
Meanwhile, on Monday the Chronicle reported that Perry was refusing to release an advisory memo from his general counsel about the Willingham case, citing attorney-client privilege. The prosecutor in the case is clinging to his absurd theories about devil worship, telling ABC News last month that Willingham traced a pentagram with fire accelerant, a brand-new and wholly phantasmagorical allegation.
Perry’s role in this continuing injustice should be cause for a national uproar at least as big as the one that attended Mark Sanford’s dalliance in Argentina or Elliot Spitzer’s patronage of prostitutes. What could be more sordid than hushing up an illegitimate state-sanctioned killing? What more obvious abuse of power exists? Yet one can easily read the country’s major papers and faithfully watch TV news and barely hear a word about what’s happening in Texas.
The state’s press is covering it, of course, and both The Chicago Tribune and The New Yorker have been heroic. On Monday, the Tribune published its latest report under the blunt headline, "Texas execution: Statements by Gov. Rick Perry, others don’t align with facts."
Still, the story, for all its drama, remains far from a hot topic. If ever a story were crying out for a journalistic pile-on, this one is. Yet there’s no intimation that this could be a career-ending thing for Perry, no widespread sense of outrage. This should be the biggest scandal of the year. The fact that it’s not is a scandal itself.
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