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October 24 2009 | UNITED STATES


Willingham's case: why has Texas's governor derailed a death-penalty investigation?

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Capital punishment

From arson to politics

Why has Texas’s governor derailed a death-penalty investigation?

United States - THE sad case of Cameron Todd Willingham began two days before Christmas in 1991. He was alone with his three daughters—one toddler and two baby twins—when their house in Corsicana, a small town south of Dallas, began to burn. Mr Willingham later said the house was so thick with smoke he could not find any of the girls before escaping. But at his trial, investigators testified that based on the burn patterns in the house, the fire had been arson. Mr Willingham was quickly convicted and sentenced to death. Years of court challenges came to nothing and in 2004 Mr Willingham was executed. “The only statement I want to make is that I am an innocent man—convicted of a crime I did not commit,” he said from the gurney.

Innocence is a recurrent claim in last statements. In Mr Willingham’s case, it may well have been true. Shortly before he was executed, an arson expert from Austin faxed a report to the governor, Rick Perry, arguing that the 1991 investigation was based on bad science and that there was no proof of arson. Half a dozen additional experts have come to the same conclusion. In August another report came from Craig Beyler, who had been hired by the Texas Forensic Science Commission (TFSC), an oversight board. Mr Beyler’s report gave a blistering assessment of the original investigation, saying its conclusions were “nothing more than a collection of personal beliefs that have nothing to do with science-based fire investigation.”

Two days before the commission was due to hold a hearing on the Beyler report, on September 30th, Mr Perry announced he was replacing three of his appointees to the TFSC, including its head, Sam Bassett. Several days later he said he would replace the fourth. Their terms had expired, the governor explained. That is true, but not especially convincing. “It certainly is bad timing for the continuity of these investigations,” says Mr Bassett, a criminal defence attorney in Austin. Had the commission concluded that the evidence did not point to arson, Mr Perry would have been faced with the grave possibility that Texas had executed an innocent person.

Even Republicans are concerned. The governor is up for re-election in 2010. Kay Bailey Hutchison, his chief opponent for the Republican nomination, announced that the business with the commission was just “giving liberals an argument to discredit the death penalty”.

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