A politician who goes out of his way to ignore the innocence of a man he’s about to execute gets nothing but contempt from me. The bloodthirsty supporters of the politician who cheer the idea that he’s an executioner — pointedly ignoring evidence that an innocent man was executed — deserve the same contempt. Meet Rick Perry and his supporters.
Todd Willingham was a troubled man from a troubled background in Texas. He drank too much. He had been known to hit his wife. He had a string of minor run-ins with the law. But when his house burned, he lost the only things that he had seemed to care about — his three children.
Fire investigators concluded that the fire must have been arson, based on guesses and assumptions. Willingham didn’t have any insurance, so there was no financial motive. Still, he was charged with murdering his three children.
At trial, prosecutors claimed he killed his kids simply because they were getting int he way of his drinking and partying, but there was no evidence of that. The only credible evidence against him was that two fire investigators said the fire was arson.
Willingham was offered a plea bargain. If he would plead guilty, he would be spared the death penalty and get life in prison without parole. He refused, saying that he couldn’t say he killed his children. He never once wavered in that.
The only other piece of evidence against Willingham was from a bi-polar man in prison. The guy had never known Willingham, but he claimed that Willingham randomly confessed the killings over an intercom system one day while he was walking down a prison hall — an intercom that prison guards would have heard. (The man later recanted his testimony and then recanted the recantation. He’s clearly a disturbed mentally disturbed man.)
After Willingham’s appeals had run out, an actual fire expert — an academic with lab training and long experience with experiments — agreed to review Willingham’s case. It was just a few weeks before Willingham’s scheduled execution, but he was quickly able to see the mistakes the original fire investigators had made. They had testified that certain things made the fire arson, but he was aware of actual experiments that proved the evidence they were citing didn’t mean what they believed it meant. They were merely repeating old stories that had been passed down among firefighters — things which turned out to have zero basis in fact.
There was no arson, so there was no murder. This evidence was sent to Texas Gov. Rick Perry, who has the power to grant a delay in the execution or even to pardon a convicted person. The evidence suggests that Perry’s office refused to even look at the evidence. As a result, Texas executed a man for a crime that clearly never took place.
In 2009, the Texas Forensic Science Commission was scheduled to hear testimony about the Willingham case — testimony that would prove that the state had executed an innocent man. Rick Perry abruptly replaced three members of the commission with men who suddenly canceled the hearing. Perry and his supporters didn’t want anyone to learn that he had watched an innocent man die — when he had the power to stop the state-sanctioned murder.
I’ve done prison ministry work in the past, and I believe that most of the people in prisons are guilty of something. Most of them are lousy human beings. But I’ve also seen enough evidence that the criminal justice system is badly flawed to know that almost anyone can get caught in a web of incompetent government employees, ambitious prosecutors, bloodthirsty juries who trust police, and politicians who are scared to do anything that doesn’t look “tough on crime.” In such a system, nobody really cares about the truth — just as long as proper procedures are followed.
The very clear truth of this case is that Rick Perry looked the other way while an innocent man was being executed, and then he took clear steps to cover up the fact that the state had been wrong. The man has blood on his hands — and he’s unwilling to admit that the system was wrong. And his bloodthirsty (and just plain ignorant) supporters cheer that fact.
It was The New Yorker that brought this story to the public consciousness in a big way two years ago. I highly recommend that you read David Grann’s excellent story about it. It’s good reporting and good writing, but it’s a sickening truth.
On Friday, one past resident of Texas’ death row had his own thoughts about Perry’s statements about Texas executions (and of the crowds’ cheers at the numbers of executions). Anthony Graves was one of the rare few who finally finds complete exoneration after years on death row. He spent 18 years in prison — and 12 of those years on death row — before being exonerated last year.
At Wednesday’s debate Perry told the audience, “I think Americans understand justice.” Graves disagrees.
“He should ask my mother about that,” Graves told ABC News Thursday. “She lost her son for 18 years.”