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2004 Execution Haunts Texas Governor's Race

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2004 Execution Haunts Texas Governor's Race


2004 Execution Haunts Texas Governor's Race

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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block at NPR West in California.


And I'm Michele Norris in Washington, D.C.

Did the state of Texas execute an innocent man? That question, and the controversy surrounding it is dogging Governor Rick Perry. Critics say the governor has tried to squelch an investigation into the case. And now the issue has moved to the forefront of Perry's re-election effort.

NPR's John Burnett has the story.

JOHN BURNETT: The Texas Forensic Science Commission hired a nationally recognized arson expert to examine the fire science used to convict Cameron Todd Willingham. He was executed by lethal injection in 2004 for setting a house fire in Corsicana that killed his three children. In a report made public in August, that expert asserted the initial arson investigation was deeply flawed. He added his voice to other fire investigators who now doubt whether arson caused the fatal fire.

Just as the commission was set to hear from that expert in late September, Governor Rick Perry abruptly removed three of its members, including the chairman. He was later quoted as saying he felt pressure from the governor's office because it was unhappy over how the Willingham probe was proceeding. As the uproar swelled, the governor went on the offensive. He called Willingham a monster. He said numerous state and federal courts had upheld his conviction for more than a decade. And Perry dismissed contrary views as those of, quote, "latter-day supposed experts." As for the shakeup on the Forensic Science Commission…

Governor RICK PERRY (Texas): No, actually, what's happening is we're following pretty normal protocol in the state. Those individuals' terms were up, so we replaced them. It's not — nothing out of the ordinary there.

BURNETT: 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 on the eve of the execution regarding clemency for Willingham. The governor says the state attorney general has ruled that memo is protected by attorney-client privilege. Capital punishment is sacrosanct in Texas. It executes more inmates than any other state. And no serious candidate from either party runs against the death penalty.

And so it was with some delicacy that Perry's opponent for the Republican nomination for governor, U.S. Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison, took on the Willingham case. She spoke to a Dallas-Fort Worth radio station.

Senator KAY BAILEY HUTCHISON (Republican, Texas): I just think the governor made a mistake in trying to ramrod a covering up of what might be more evidence for the future.

BURNETT: Perry's office pounced on Hutchison, knowing the popularity of capital punishment in Texas is upwards of 70 percent. The governor spokesperson is Allison Castle.

Ms. ALLISON CASTLE (Texas Governor Spokesperson): What the senator is suggesting that she opposes the death penalty for an individual who murdered his three daughters, then she should just say so.

BURNETT: Actually, Hutchison started her statement saying she's a steadfast supporter of the death penalty. Dave McNeely is a longtime political journalist in Austin.

Mr. DAVE MCNEELY (Journalist, Austin): 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 certainly people outside Texas — and a lot of people in Texas — that he's playing fast and loose with the death penalty.

BURNETT: Rick Perry is the longest-serving governor in Texas' history. And he's seeking an unprecedented third term. Perry's new chairman of the Forensic Science Commission is a hard-nosed district attorney and conservative ally of the governor. He says he needs time to study the Willingham arson report and has not set a new date when the commission will consider it.

John Burnett, NPR News, Austin.

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