Last week Gov. Rick Perry flew to Lubbock to dedicate a memorial statue of Timothy Cole, a Texas Tech student who was wrongly convicted of raping a fellow student after a badly botched police investigation.
Cole died in prison in the 14th year of a 25-year sentence.
The highlight of last week’s ceremony was when Perry said, “This statue will serve as a reminder that justice must be tempered with wisdom and that we all must stand vigilant against injustice, wherever it may be found.”
Gov. Perry should keep that imperative in mind as he reconsiders the case of Cameron Todd Willingham.
Willingham was the Corsicana man who was executed for setting an arson fire that killed his three children as they slept.
His was one of the first cases taken up by the then-new Texas Forensic Science Commission.
Two days before that commission was to hear a report on the arson evidence from one of the nation’s top experts, Perry fired the commission’s chairman and replaced him with Williamson County District Attorney John Bradley.
It was a strange choice.
Bradley had fought for five years to keep DNA testing from being performed on a bandana in the case of Michael Morton, who was serving a life sentence for murdering his wife.
Eventually that bandana not only proved Morton’s innocence but also led to the real murderer.
Bradley not so subtly attempted to neuter the Commission, which he saw as second-guessing prosecutors.
His behavior was so egregious that when he finally faced confirmation during the next legislative session, the Republican-controlled Senate rejected him.
Eventually the Forensic Science Commission found what nine arson experts – including the one they had commissioned – had repeatedly said.
There was no evidence that the fire had been intentionally set.
Perry, who had ignored pleas by arson experts that he at least delay Willingham’s execution, reacted by calling the arson scientists “latter-day supposed experts” and calling their inquiries “a sideshow.”
He also called Willingham “a monster” and said that there was “clear and compelling, overwhelming evidence” of Willingham’s guilt.
In fact, the most powerful testimony, other than that of the state’s arson officials, was by a 22-year-old fellow inmate named Johnny Webb.
He testified that Willingham had confessed to him.
In response to a question by District Attorney John Jackson, Webb said he had been promised nothing for his testimony.
But it turns out that Jackson, first as prosecutor and later as a judge, did extraordinary things for Webb.
In a lengthy and well-documented story last month, The Washington Post reported:
“In taped interviews, Webb, who has previously both recanted and affirmed his testimony, gives his first detailed account of how he lied on the witness stand in return for efforts by the former prosecutor, John H. Jackson, to reduce Webb's prison sentence for robbery and to arrange thousands of dollars in support from a wealthy Corsicana rancher. Newly uncovered letters and court files show that Jackson worked diligently to intercede for Webb after his testimony and to coordinate with the rancher, Charles S. Pearce Jr., to keep the mercurial informer in line.”Jackson is now being investigated by the State Bar for his handling of the Willingham case.
That’s the same State Bar that revoked the law license of the district attorney who prosecuted Michael Morton for hiding evidence of Morton’s innocence.
The State Bar could well reach a conclusion that Mr. Jackson cheated to convict Willingham in the heat of Perry’s presidential campaign.
Perry could help himself in two ways.
He could publicly express concern that he may have been wrong and ask the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles to investigate and recommend a pardon if the fellow inmate’s testimony is found to be as false as the arson evidence.
And Perry can order that federal grant money for criminal justice be used not just for police and prosecutors in Texas, but also to fund scientific expert testimony for attorneys for indigent defendants.
After all, leveling the field between prosecutors and defense attorneys is one way of standing vigilant against injustice.