Did Governor Perry’s zeal for the death penalty cause him to ignore a warning, backed up by scientific evidence, that Texas was about to execute an innocent man in 2004? Below is an excerpt from an article in The Independent that suggests the answer is yes and that Cameron Willingham, who was executed in Feb 2004, could have been exonerated just as Ernest Willis was soon to be exonerated in October 2004, if only Governor Perry had not been blinded by his unwillingness to believe that the Texas death penalty system makes mistakes. Texans support the death penalty, but do they support applying it to innocent people? Will they continue to support a governor that does not prevent the death penalty from being applied to innocent people? Read the “Report on the Peer Review of the Expert Testimony in the Cases of State of Texas v. Cameron Todd Willingham and State of Texas v. Ernest Ray Willis”.
It also spells political trouble for Governor Perry as he faces an election race this November. Many of the arson panel’s conclusions had been reached even before Willingham’s execution, by a Cambridge-educated arson expert called Gerald Hurst, who passed on his findings to the Governor’s office. As he told an investigative team from the Chicago Tribune at the time: “There’s nothing to suggest to any reasonable arson investigator that this was an arson fire. It was just a fire.” It does not appear, however, that Dr Hurst’s findings were taken seriously by either the Governor’s office or the state Board of Pardons and Paroles.
Barry Scheck, one of the two principles of the Innocence Project, who remains perhaps most famous for his role in defending O J Simpson, said he had established through open records requests that the Hurst report had indeed been properly filed before the execution.
“Neither office has any record of anyone acknowledging it, taking note of its significance, responding to it or calling any attention to it within the government,” he said. “The only reasonable conclusion is that the Governor’s office and the Board of Pardons and Paroles ignored scientific evidence and went through with the execution.”
The prosecution, meanwhile, presented last-minute, second-hand evidence that Willingham had confessed to his estranged wife, something she later said was untrue.
Perhaps most poignant for Willingham’s surviving relatives is that, at the time of execution, a similar case was going through the Texas legal system, that of Ernest Willis, who had been sentenced to death for his alleged role in setting a fatal fire in west Texas in 1987. Dr Hurst examined his case, too, found the forensic evidence similarly flawed and said he saw no evidence of arson. Willis was able to have his case reopened and dismissed. He walked out of death row a free man seven months after Willingham’s execution.