Texas Governor, Rick Perry, thinks Cameron Todd Willingham intentionally burned down his house with his kids inside. Perry is sticking to this belief even if the purported fire experts who testified at Willingham’s trial used weird science to bolster the prosecution’s pet theory. Even when Craig Beyler, one of the nation’s leading fire experts, concluded that the available evidence lent no support to the prosecution’s claims Perry was unimpressed. The Governor thinks Beyler is blowing smoke because . . . well, Mr. Perry doesn’t need a reason; he’s the governor.
Yesterday, Governor Perry fired three members of the Texas Forensic Science Commission just days before Craig Beyler was scheduled to report to the group. Perry sacked solid, pro-death penalty conservatives he had earlier appointed.
Interviewed by the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, Alan Levy, one of the board members sacked by Perry, tossed off one of the best lines I’ve heard in a while: “I feel like a jilted lover, except that he’s prettier than I am.”
It gets worse when you consider who the Governor appointed to fill the vacancies on the Commission: Williamson County District Attorney John Bradley. Bradley has a reputation for prosecuting weak cases by all means necessary. He is precisely the kind of prosecutor the Texas Forensic Science Commission was supposedly designed to oversee. In other words, the proverbial fox is now guarding the hen house.
Bradley and the Governor clearly had their strategy mapped out in advance. The moment the Williamson County prosecutor was appointed to head the Commission he cancelled a scheduled meeting at which Craig Beyler was supposed to lay out his findings.
Bradley claims he intends to let Beyler report, but he won’t say when. Hopefully when the furor over the Willingham execution dies down a bit. Bradley has assured CNN that he will proceed “methodically”; a euphemism, I suspect, for “slowly”.
Perry’s move will force the commission to trashcan weeks of valuable work. “The commission had worked together for some time as a unit and we were ready to go the next step,” Alan Levy told the Star-Telegram in a follow-up interview, “and now they have to start from ground zero again because they have new people. ”
You know what really disturbs me about this incident? Perry operates in a tuff-on-crime political environment so oppressive that he thinks he can get act with complete immunity. Fortunately, most conservatives believe in basic fairness. They might not understand the mechanics of wrongful conviction, but when you slap them across the face with a power grab this transparent they can’t help but notice.
Last week I was speaking at a National Association of Criminal Defense Counsel conference in Wisconsin dedicated to racial bias in the criminal justice system. Vince Warren of the Center for Constitutional Rights talked about the futility of “a race neutral approach to a race-based problem.” White juries don’t see facts, Warren asserted, they see symbols. If no one challenges the meta-narrative (big story) within which prosecutions unfold, Warren said, present trends will continue.
Another presenter told us about a report by the National Academy of Sciences, “Strengthening Forensic Science in the United States: a Path Forward“. The report isn’t just critical of what passes for forensic in most American courtrooms, it calls for sweeping changes. The forensic scientific community, the report suggests, is incapable of reforming itself because it operates out of a prosecution bias. Therefore a new forensic science agency with no ties whatsoever to law enforcement or the prosecutorial function needs to be created.
Under the current system, our presenter suggested, most forensic “experts” are biased by a desire to please law enforcement, to conform their findings to the prosecution’s theory of the crime and to avoid conflict.
The Cameron Todd Willingham case illustrates the problem to perfection. Governor Perry’s bizarre response shows just how politicized the criminal justice system has become.
When I arrived back in Arlington I was thrilled to see that the Star-Telegram (the paper I find on my front lawn every morning) is doing a thorough, five-part investigation of the shoddy state of forensic science in Texas. A recent stream of DNA exonerations, the National Academy of Sciences’ report and the Willingham case lie at the heart of the series.
In some cases, critics say, justice may be trumped by outside influences and by speculation that goes beyond hard scientific evidence. There are even questions about how much “science” is in forensic science. In a report to Congress this year, the National Academy of Sciences said that there is a dearth of studies establishing the scientific validity of many forensic methods and that invalid interpretation of forensic evidence is a serious problem.
Question. Will Kay Bailey Hutchinson, Rick Perry’s chief opponent in the Republican gubernatorial race, make the Willingham case a campaign issue?
Answer. No. Hutchinson knows that, whatever Republicans may think of her opponent’s strong-arm tactics, they share Perry’s passion for propping up the moral integrity of the criminal justice system, in general, and the death penalty, in particular.
Death penalty opponents argue that public executions cannot be defended when innocent people are regularly convicted of murder. The only counter to this argument is the audacious claim that no innocent person has ever been executed in the state of Texas. Perry believes Willingham is guilty because, if he isn’t, critics of the death penalty win. It’s that simple.
Todd Willingham was no angel. In fact, his manifold character flaws sealed his fate. Prosecutors had no trouble convincing jurors that Todd done the crime because he fit the thug profile. Willingham was violent, abusive and sported lots of macabre tatoos–therefore, he intentionally murdered his children in the most fiendish manner imaginable. That, in brief, was the government’s case.
Thus far, Governor Perry’s bizarre move has taken lots of flack. Over at Grits for Breakfast, Scott Henson is stunned: “This really took a lot of chutzpah! But the governor can’t rewrite history by simply stopping the Commission from making official findings. That ship has sailed. More people read that New Yorker article than will ever read anything the Commission publishes, so concern about polishing the state’s image on the Willingham case is both belated and misdirected. We’ll see what happens next; the ball is in Mr. Bradley’s court.”
Lisa Falkenberg of the Houston Chronicle called up Barry Scheck of the Innocence Project to get his take. “Scheck likened the move to President Richard Nixon’s infamous attempts to oust a special prosecutor investigating Watergate. ‘It’s a Saturday night massacre, pure and simple,’ Scheck said. ‘If you don’t like the evidence, you just get rid of the judges.'”
Reform is coming, brothers and sisters, but the guardians of the status quo won’t give up without a fight. Moreover, as Rick Perry amply demonstrates, these guys fight dirty.