Gov. Rick Perry (R-TX) is facing questions about his responsibility for wrongfully executing Cameron Todd Willingham, convicted of arson for a fire that killed his daughters, despite new expert analysis showing there was in fact zero evidence of arson. An investigation into the execution has already found that Perry was given the new evidence to review —which should have shown him that all the evidence of guilt was actually scientifically unfounded testimony— but chose not to stay the execution pending review of the trial process and evidence.
When the investigation began looking into Gov. Perry’s review of the process, what he knew and when he knew it, he refused to reappoint the sitting chair of the commission and replaced him and two other members with conservatives sympathetic to his point of view. The new commissioner has canceled testimony from a leading arson expert that would discredit the case used to execute Willingham.
Gov. Perry is locked in a serious challenge within his own party from Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, who says his politicization of the death penalty has put the entire system at risk. There are also mounting concerns the governor in fact saw the new evidence and even received a direct communication from Willingham’s lawyer requesting a stay, but deliberately chose to ignore clearly exculpatory evidence for political reasons.
If that is indeed the case, Gov. Perry might face legal consequences for knowingly putting an innocent man to death to further his own political career. That question has not been put forward explicitly by the state’s investigators, and Gov. Perry’s moves to change the makeup of the panel by appointing potential allies are a clear attempt to prevent it from being posed formally, but allegations the governor’s office sought to halt the investigation suggest precisely the possibility he knew he was executing an innocent man and umis worried about the legal and political fallout should his actions be formally investigated.
For his part, Gov. Perry is now aggressively attacking Willingham in the court of public opinion, seeking to make his death seem a welcome end to a reign of terror by calling him a “monster” and saying he beat his wife to force her to have an abortion. Perry hopes to persuade a majority of voters to see him as a man who did his civic duty in putting a murderer to death. But even Republicans are now questioning Perry’s personal responsibility and commitment to the integrity of the system.
Could a governor empowered by law to approve death sentences, but also to halt them before they are enforced, actually face homicide charges, should he be seen to have knowingly executed an innocent man for personal gain? Certainly federal law provides ways such a charge and/or verdict could come to pass — for instance felony murder based on abuse of office, or violating a citizen’s civil rights by denying him his day in court (with the new evidence).
What is perhaps more surprising than that this situation has arisen or that such questions are being raised —this has long been expected to some degree, given the radically pro-death penalty political climate in Texas— is the fact that Gov. Perry appears to have so brazenly and publicly sought to interfere in the process and evince his personal wishes that the matter never be fully reviewed.
The point has many times been made, by both opponents and responsible proponents of capital punishment, that everyone, every citizen and every politician, had the same very real interest in making sure the system never permits an innocent person anywhere near death row. Perry, however, seems determined not to take any action that would ensure the integrity of the system.
Either he does not claim and does not want any responsibility over the system, in which case, one imagines he is unfit to serve at the top of it, or he has taken it upon himself to impede the progress of justice, conceal evidence and unilaterally assert the reliability of a process, while refusing to use its last true humane tool to scrutinize the process and side with justice, in which case…
It gets easier to see over time why Perry wants the investigation halted. He has put far more Americans to death than any living official. And Willingham was not the first case he simply shrugged off as settled and in no need of review. How many of those cases will suddenly become suspect, if 1) Willingham is formally found innocent and 2) evidence emerges that the governor ignored exculpatory evidence and executed an innocent man, not just as a result of a travesty of justice but with specific personal political and professional gain in mind? In how many of those cases did Perry consciously or even explicitly consider personal political benefit as tied to ending a human life?
Opponents of the death penalty already smell blood in the water and are beginning to view Perry as easy prey. If they can show that the single most prolific executioner in the United States ignored evidence, gamed the system and put people to death banking on the political benefits of having done so, it will breathe new life into the abolitionist movement. Perry must fight not only that political battle, but also the perception that his attempt to end the investigation might be a criminal coverup.