Friday, March 13, 2015

Man's execution could haunt Perry | Last Word

In his quest to become president, former Gov. Rick Perry must vanquish the phantom of the cabinet department he wanted to kill – but couldn’t remember.

That was his legendary “oops!” moment.

A story in this week’s Washington Post raises the very real possibility he may have to deal with another ghost – the ghost of Cameron Todd Willingham.

Willingham is the Corsicana man who was executed in 2004 for killing his three children by setting his house on fire while they slept.

Perry’s record as governor is tightly intertwined with the Willingham saga.

A month before Willingham’s execution, Perry was sent a report by an Austin-based scientist and arson expert.

The expert, Dr. Gerald Hurst, had reviewed the evidence and the testimony presented at trial by arson investigators.

He concluded that despite the confidant testimony of two arson investigators – one local and one from the state fire marshal’s office – there was no evidence that the tragic fire was caused by arson.

Lawyers for Willingham sent Hurst’s report to Perry, asking him to delay the proceedings until Hurst’s findings could be explored.

Perry did not respond to the request.

The next year, the Legislature created the Texas Forensic Science Commission, one of the first efforts in the nation to investigate bad police science and to work to improve the practice of it.

The Willingham case was one of the first taken up by the nine-member commission, which included seven respected scientists.

The commission selected one of the nation’s top arson experts, Dr. Craig Beyler, to review the evidence and trial transcript.

He came to the same conclusion Dr. Hurst did, that there was no evidence of arson.

But three days before Beyler was to present his report to the Commission, Gov. Perry replaced the chairman and two other commission members.

He replaced the chairman with John Bradley, district attorney from Williamson County.

Bradley was not an obvious choice for the position.

For years he had quietly fought the DNA testing of a bandana found behind the home of Michael Morton, who was serving a life sentence for the brutal murder of his wife.

The Forensic Science Commission was now led by a prosecutor who fought the use of DNA testing.

Bradley delayed the tests for six years.

When an appeals court ordered the test, it not only showed Morton to be innocent,  it identified the real murderer.

Bradley’s first action as commission chairman was to cancel the meeting at which Beyler was to present his report.

His second was to baldly try to gut the commission itself. 

The scientists beat him back.

And after a lengthy investigation the commission issued a report that forcefully refuted virtually every argument made by arson investigators at trial.

Perry responded to criticism of his appointment of Bradley by calling Willingham a “monster” and accusing reporters of ignoring the testimony of other witnesses who testified.

But the only other witness of substance was a jailhouse snitch who testified that Willingham had confessed to him that he had set the fire to kill his children.

Johnny Webb also testified that he had not been promised anything in exchange for that testimony.

Webb later recanted his testimony, saying Willingham was innocent, then went back and forth on it.

But subsequent investigations have shown that the prosecutor, John H. Jackson, later persuaded a judge to alter Webb’s burglary conviction so that he could be immediately paroled.

Jackson claims that he took that action not in exchange for Webb’s testimony but because Webb was in danger for having testified.

The Washington Post reported this week that Jackson’s lawyer said he expected the State Bar of Texas, which has been investigating the matter, to announce that it will file formal charges of misconduct.

The lawyer said Jackson will demand a trial on the matter.

That trial could, in the middle of the presidential campaign, bring national attention to powerful evidence that Rick Perry allowed the execution of an innocent man.

Despite being warned of the bad science in the case.

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