Monday, October 29, 2012

Texas Gov. Rick Perry's death penalty debacle

Perry's popularity dipped at home after he dropped out of the [presidential] race, but something else lurking in his past could cause worse than a downturn in his poll numbers. Perry, it turns out, not only stood by while his state's executioners took the life of a man widely believed by forensics scientists to have been innocent, he later acted to prevent evidence of that innocence from seeing the light of day. He oversees a state whose procedures for reviewing inmate appeals are a national disgrace and that may, if the case of Cameron Todd Willingham is ever given a fair hearing, prove to be the home of the first execution of a factually and legally innocent person since the advent of the modern judicial system.

Willingham was convicted in 1992 of setting an arson fire that killed his three young daughters based on the testimony of witnesses, including a jailhouse informant who claimed Willingham confessed to setting the fire, and a pair of veteran fire investigators. As the New Yorker chronicled in an extensive 2009 article about the Willingham case, when a pen pal of the inmate's named Elizabeth Gilbert began investigating in 1999, she discovered numerous holes in witnesses' statements; a few months after a visit from Gilbert, the jailhouse informant who was the prosection's key witness sent a Motion to Recant Testimony to the prosecuting attorney asserting that Willingham was innocent. But it was the later discovery that the work of fire investigators had been based on outdated and unscientific methods that should have saved Willingham from the death chamber. Anywhere but Texas, it probably would have.


Source: Dan Turner, Opinion, Los Angeles Times, October 28, 2012