2004 Execution Haunts Texas Governor's Race

Texas Gov. Rick Perry speaks during a news conference Tuesday, June 2, 2009, in Austin, Texas. i i

Texas Gov. Rick Perry speaks during a news conference June 2 in Austin. Critics say the governor has tried to squelch an investigation into a death penalty case. Harry Cabluck/AP hide caption

itoggle caption Harry Cabluck/AP
Texas Gov. Rick Perry speaks during a news conference Tuesday, June 2, 2009, in Austin, Texas.

Texas Gov. Rick Perry speaks during a news conference June 2 in Austin. Critics say the governor has tried to squelch an investigation into a death penalty case.

Harry Cabluck/AP

Did Texas execute an innocent man?

That question, and the controversy surrounding it, continues to dog Gov. Rick Perry. Critics say the governor has tried to squelch an investigation into the case. Now the issue has moved to the forefront of Perry's effort to win re-election.

At the heart of the controversy is Cameron Todd Willingham, who was executed by lethal injection in 2004 after being convicted of setting a house fire in Corsicana that killed his three children.

The Texas Forensic Science Commission hired a nationally recognized arson expert to examine the fire science used to convict Willingham. In a report made public in August, that expert, Craig Beyler, asserted the initial arson investigation was deeply flawed, adding his voice to those of other fire investigators who now doubt whether arson caused the fatal blaze.

Just as the commission was set to hear from Beyler in late September, Perry abruptly removed three of its members, including the chairman. The chairman, Sam Bassett, later said he felt pressure from the governor's office because it was unhappy over how the Willingham probe was proceeding.

More On The Texas Death Penalty

Former Texas Gov. Mark White, a Democrat who strongly supported the death penalty when he was governor from 1983-87, tells NPR's Melissa Block he has doubts about capital punishment.

Governor Defends His Actions

As the uproar swelled, the governor went on the offensive. He called Willingham "a monster" and said numerous state and federal courts had upheld his conviction for more than a decade. Perry dismissed contrary views as those of "latter-day supposed experts."

As for the shakeup on the Forensic Science Commission, Perry said, "What's happening is we're following pretty normal protocol in the state. Those individuals' terms were up, so we replaced them — nothing out of the ordinary there."

But the state's leading newspapers aren't buying his explanation. Their editorial pages have roundly condemned the governor's actions as arrogant. They also have criticized his refusal to release an advisory memo from his general counsel regarding clemency for Willingham on the eve of his execution. The governor says the state attorney general has ruled that the memo is protected by attorney-client privilege.

Leading Republican Opponent Criticizes Perry

Capital punishment is sacrosanct in Texas, which executes more inmates than any other state. No serious candidate from either party runs against it.

So it was with some delicacy that Perry's opponent for the Republican nomination for governor, U.S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, took on the Willingham case.

"I just think the governor made a mistake in trying to ramrod a covering up of what might be more evidence for the future," Hutchison told a Dallas-Fort Worth radio station.

Perry's office pounced on Hutchison, knowing the popularity of capital punishment in Texas — upwards of 70 percent of the population support it.

"If the senator is suggesting she opposes the death penalty for an individual who murdered his three daughters, then she should just say so," said the governor's spokeswoman, Allison Castle.

However, the senator had started her statement by saying she's "a steadfast supporter of the death penalty."

"The point that Hutchison is trying to make about Rick Perry is that he's hurt the death penalty, weakened it, by making it look to people outside Texas — and a lot of people in Texas — that he's playing fast and loose with the death penalty," said Dave McNeely, a longtime political journalist in Austin.

Perry, who gained his seat after George W. Bush left the Texas governor's mansion for the White House in 2001, is the longest-serving governor in Texas history. He's seeking an unprecedented third term.

Perry's new chairman of the Forensic Science Commission, John Bradley, is a hard-nosed district attorney and a conservative ally of the governor. He says he needs time to study the Willingham arson report and has not set a new date for the commission to consider it.

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