The Pulse: A death case Perry may come to regret

Cameron Todd Willingham was executed in 2004 in the house-fire deaths of his three children.
Cameron Todd Willingham was executed in 2004 in the house-fire deaths of his three children.

At debate, audience cheered Texas' death penalty, but Cameron Todd Willingham's execution is drawing a closer look.

Posted: September 25, 2011

In every presidential campaign, a face in the crowd becomes a household name and makes a major impact on the race. Think Joe the Plumber or the Rev. Jeremiah Wright in 2008. Or Katherine Harris in 2000. Or Willie Horton in 1988.

Rick Perry hopes that Cameron Todd Willingham is not that person in 2012.

Recall that attendees at a GOP debate earlier this month at the Reagan library cheered the mere mention of executions carried out in Texas on the watch of Perry. The reaction came when moderator Brian Williams asked, "Gov. Perry, a question about Texas. Your state has executed 234 death-row inmates, more than any other governor in modern times. Have you . . ." Applause then interrupted the exchange before Williams asked: "Have you struggled to sleep at night with the idea that any one of those might have been innocent?"

Perry said he hadn't, noting that death-row inmates have a long series of appeals at their disposal. "In the state of Texas," he said, "if you come into our state and you kill one of our children, you kill a police officer, you're involved with another crime and you kill one of our citizens, you will face the ultimate justice."

The sheer number of executions on Perry's watch is probably a sign of his long tenure more than anything else. But one of those 234 - Willingham - may prove to be an issue in the presidential race.

David Grann put the case on many radar screens when the New Yorker published his 16,000-word treatment of Willingham in 2009. Grann recounted the story of a Corsicana, Texas, house fire on Dec. 23, 1991, that claimed the lives of Willingham's three children - 1-year-old twins Karmon and Kameron and 2-year-old Amber.

After investigators concluded that the fire was a case of arson, Willingham, despite a lack of apparent motive, was convicted in a two-day trial of triple homicide and sentenced to death. An offer of life imprisonment was insufficient incentive to make him confess. He maintained his innocence until the moment he was put to death.

When asked for his last words, he said: "The only statement I want to make is that I am an innocent man convicted of a crime I did not commit. I have been persecuted for 12 years for something I did not do. From God's dust I came and to dust I will return, so the Earth shall become my throne."

Grann told me he was initially dubious as to Willingham's protestations.

"When I first read the prosecution brief I thought this guy sounds rather monstrous and guilty," Grann said. However, the lack of evidence gave Grann second thoughts.

In January 2004, as Willingham sat on death row, a pen pal named Elizabeth Gilbert, along with a Willingham cousin, contacted Dr. Gerald Hurst, a Cambridge-educated scientist and fire investigator. Hurst received the files on Willingham's case only a few weeks before the execution date, and was immediately troubled by what he saw.

Grann wrote: "As Hurst looked through the case records, a statement by Manuel Vasquez, the state deputy fire marshal, jumped out at him. Vasquez had testified that, of the roughly 1,200 to 1,500 fires he had investigated, 'most all of them' were arson. This was an oddly high estimate; the Texas State Fire Marshals Office typically found arson in only 50 percent of its cases."

Hurst detailed many objections based on the latest thinking in arson investigations, and concluded that a father was about to be executed for killing his three children based on "junk science." He was in such a rush to release his findings that he didn't bother to correct typos. But it was to no avail.

Perry refused a stay of execution, and Willingham was executed Feb. 17, 2004. The debate, however, was only getting started.

Ten months later, the Chicago Tribune's Maurice Possley and Steve Mills highlighted flaws in the science used to convict Willingham. Three experts they consulted agreed with Hurst. In 2005, Texas established the state Forensic Science Commission to investigate further. The commission hired Dr. Craig L. Beyler to lead the probe, and he would come to agree with Hurst. Beyler lambasted the arson investigation that convicted Willingham, saying it was "characteristic of mystics or psychics." He was not alone.

"There is not a single leading fire scientist who has looked at this case and concluded that Willingham . . . set the fire or that there was any evidence that arson even took place," Grann told me. True, three professional reviews of the arson investigations, while not rendering opinions as to Willingham's guilt or innocence, found fault with the initial investigation.

Yet in October 2009, two days before the state Forensic Science Commission was to hear testimony from Beyler, Perry replaced three members, including the chairman. Since then, the commission has been engaged in a series of political power struggles that has ensnared its members and even the state attorney general, who significantly limited the commission's jurisdiction in July. Next month, the panel will vote on its final report in the case.

At that point, the name of Cameron Todd Willingham could become more well-known than the Perry campaign would like.


Contact Michael Smerconish via www.smerconish.com. Read his columns at www.philly.com/smerconish.

 

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