By Frank James
The case of the Texas man who may have been wrongly executed for arson-murders he didn't commit has taken another noteworthy turn as a nationally recognized arson expert has accused Gov. Rick Perry of unethical behavior in the case.
The 2004 execution of Cameron Todd Willingham of Corsicana, Texas has received increasing national attention it comes the closest in the modern era of the death penalty to a provable instance of an innocent man being executed.
Arson expert Craig Beyler of Baltimore has harshly criticized the Texas governor for changing the personnel of the Texas agency that has been investigating the dubious arson evidence that led to Willingham's execution and evidence in other death penalty cases.
The governor's critics believe he may have made the move to avoid a conclusion that Texas did indeed execute an innocent man.
Baltimore-based Craig Beyler, hired by the Texas Forensic Science Commission to examine the case, said in an e-mail that the governor should not have upended the commission, which was to have heard his report just days after Perry replaced several members. He said the governor had a conflict of interest because he approved the execution of Cameron Todd Willingham of Corsicana.
"His failure to recuse himself is both unethical and injurious to the cause of justice," Beyler wrote in a note intended for the Forensic Science Commission and forwarded to several reporters with his permission.
Beyler's report found that no credible evidence existed to show Willingham intentionally set the blaze that killed his three children in a 1991 house fire. When Perry moved to replace several commission members, including the chairman, the hearing was postponed indefinitely. The new chairman has not rescheduled it.
Beyler, who is technically a contractor to a state commission, called on the new appointees to step down and seek the reinstatement of the people they replaced. He could not be reached to elaborate.
Perry's press secretary, Allison Castle, said the comments call into question Beyler's report and his motives.
"This statement demonstrates that he was never an objective scientist looking only at forensic facts," Castle said. "He clearly had another agenda."
NPR has focused on the Willingham case, too. In September, All Things Considered Robert Siegel interviewed David Grann who wrote a New Yorker piece that makes a very convincing argument for Willingham's innocence and the incompetent way in which Texas' justice system handled the case.
Perry, Texas' governor, has called Willingham a "monster." But the real monster may be a system that could execute a person who appears to have been innocent based on what the experts contend without acknowledging that it may have done a ghastly wrong.
It brings to mind the famous words of Oliver Cromwell: "I beseech you, in the bowels of Christ, think it possible you may be mistaken."