The science of life and death in Texas

Blog ››› ››› SIMON MALOY

It would be a shame to interrupt the media's incessant and overblown coverage of ACORN and the president's push for the Olympics to come to Chicago, but there is a story of incredible importance developing in Texas about life, death, abuse of power, and the role of science in American governance.

It all revolves around Cameron Todd Willingham, an Oklahoma man who was convicted of setting a fire that killed his three daughters, a crime for which he was put to death by the state of Texas in 2004. The New Yorker profiled Mr. Willingham last month, documenting the details of the arson investigation, as well as the investigation of Dr. Gerald Hurst, a renowned arson expert who exposed dramatic flaws in the case against Willingham, in particular the methods employed by the state's arson investigators. In late 2003, Hurst compiled a report on the Willingham case in which he denounced the state's arson investigation as being based upon "junk science," and concluded that there was no evidence of arson and that the fatal fire had been an accident. The report was sent to the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles and to Governor Rick Perry's office shortly before Willingham was to be executed, but there is no evidence that either the board or the governor's office even looked at it. Willingham's parole was denied, his request for a stay of execution was rejected, and he was put to death on February 17, 2004.

Since then, the Innocence Project has continued to push on behalf of Willingham, seeking to document that he was convicted based on flawed forensic analysis. Another nationally renowned fire expert, Craig Beyler, has investigated the case and was set to testify before the Texas Forensic Science Commission about his own report, which, according to the New Yorker, "concluded that investigators in the Willingham case had no scientific basis for claiming that the fire was arson, ignored evidence that contradicted their theory, had no comprehension of flashover and fire dynamics, relied on discredited folklore, and failed to eliminate potential accidental or alternative causes of the fire." Beyler was scheduled to appear before the board tomorrow.

But Gov. Perry intervened. As reported by the Dallas Morning News, Perry abruptly dismissed three members of the Forensic Science Commission on Wednesday, including the chairman, whom Perry replaced with "Williamson County District Attorney John Bradley ... one of the most conservative, hard-line prosecutors in Texas." According to the report, Bradley said he never sought the position, and the first he heard of it was when Perry offered it to him Wednesday morning. As a consequence of the firings, the hearing into the Willingham case was canceled and has not been rescheduled. The Dallas Morning News noted: "The governor has questioned Beyler's findings and argued that there is other evidence of Willingham's guilt. And Perry told The Associated Press on Wednesday that the terms of the dismissed board members were expiring that and replacing them 'was pretty standard business as usual.'"

"Standard business as usual"? It's "standard" to fire three members of a panel just days before that panel was scheduled to hear evidence that the state executed a wrongly convicted man? It's standard for a governor to torpedo a hearing that could have demonstrated he allowed an innocent man to die, even though the exculpatory evidence was available at the time of execution? And not just any evidence either - a report compiled by one of the top fire scientists in the nation which was later corroborated by the findings of another, equally renowned fire scientist. That would be quite an embarrassment for Perry, who is up for reelection next year and is facing a tough primary fight from Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison.

This is all, at the very least, quite fishy. It's also potentially earth-shaking -- never before has it been conclusively determined that someone in this country was wrongfully put to death. If Cameron Todd Willingham's innocence can be proven, it would upend the entire rationale behind our system of capital punishment. And yet there hasn't been a whole lot of media coverage - a Nexis search of all news sources for the past two days for (cameron w/2 willingham and perry) turned up seven results.

What are we being treated to instead? In-depth and sensationalist reports about what President Obama's "safe schools czar" said to one of his students 21 years ago. That's the problem with letting Glenn Beck set the news agenda - the stories that actually matter sometimes slip through.

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