Rick Perry has spent much of 2009 on a one-man mission to ensure that Texas retains its reputation, in the post-Dubya era, for swaggering backwardness and proudly willful ignorance. With his battle against unemployment benefits, his George Wallace impersonation at the tea parties and his batty crusade against health-care reform as a violation of “states’ rights,” the governor has kept non-Texans chortling, tut-tutting and begging us to secede—while keeping rational-minded Texans cringing and wondering why the best chance to unseat him next year has to come in the form of Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison.
We could have a long, lively and dispiriting debate about the single most ridiculous thing Perry’s done or said in his pandering to the fearful, the dimwitted and the hateful. But for my money, nothing sums up the essential character of this politician quite so neatly and damningly as his reaction to the evidence that he permitted the execution of an innocent man.
In February 2004, Cameron Todd Willingham of Corsicana was put to death for allegedly killing his three young daughters in a house fire. Prior to the execution, the governor and the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles—every member a Perry appointee—ignored a report by Austin’s Gerald Hurst, one of the nation’s premier arson experts, that showed the arson finding resulted from a shoddy investigation based on outdated methods. Last month, another leading arson scientist, Craig Beyler, issued a report to the Texas Forensic Science Commission, also finding that investigators relied on what Hurst calls “old wives’ tales” to conclude that Willingham set the fatal fire. You might imagine that the mounting evidence of innocent blood on his (and our) hands would be an occasion for—at the very least—some thoughtful reflection on the part of the “pro-life” Texan-in-chief. But in his first public response to Beyler’s report, Perry was downright flippant.
“I’m familiar with the latter-day supposed experts on the arson side of it,” he told the Dallas Morning News, which reported the governor “making quotation marks with his fingers to underscore his skepticism.” Even if it wasn’t arson, he added, there was “clear and compelling, overwhelming evidence that he was in fact the murderer of his children.”
Come again? Willingham’s children died in a fire. If he didn’t set the fire, then he did not murder them. It’s plain as day. Logic 101. Unless you are more concerned with scoring political points among the anti-science and hang-‘em-high crowds than with making sure your state doesn’t kill wrongfully convicted citizens.
“It’s all a farce,” Willingham said while on Death Row. Now we know he was right. We also know that the problem goes far beyond his case. The cover story in this issue is Part Three of “Burn Patterns,” Dave Mann’s series of investigations into questionable arson convictions in Texas. Nearly 800 Texans are serving time for arson-related crimes. With the help of Gerald Hurst and other experts, Mann has now exposed three more cases in which almost certainly innocent men were convicted on the basis of junk science.
The state must undertake a systematic examination of every questionable arson conviction to ensure that wrongful findings are overturned—and won’t happen again. And the good people of Texas need to holler, long and loud, for a moratorium on executions while an independent commission looks into the flaws in our criminal-justice system that led to Willingham’s state-sponsored murder.
If it wasn’t clear before, it is now: Gov. Perry is unfit to make life-and-death decisions on behalf of the citizens of Texas. That’s one sad fact that surely has been proven beyond a reasonable doubt.
Don Yarborough, RIP
In his political heyday of the 1960s, Don Yarborough would have had plenty to say about Rick Perry’s notions of justice. Yarborough, who died on Sept. 23, ran three times for governor during that decade, championing civil rights, women’s rights, and social and technological progress. He never won, but he galvanized Texas progressives by challenging, and darn near dethroning, the conservative Democratic regime led by Lyndon Johnson and John Connally.
In an article about Yarborough’s first campaign in 1962, legendary Observer writer Willie Morris quoted him on the proper role of a governor: “He should be responsive to public opinion, but he should also be responsible to mould public opinion along lines consistent with the 1960s. He should set a moral tone for the state. He should have the courage to speak out for programs not immediately popular but vital to our progress. He should search deeply into the instincts of the people.”
More than four decades later, we still long for a leader with that kind of thoughtfulness and integrity.
After this issue, the Observer takes its quarterly publication break. We’ll be back with a special 40-page issue on Oct. 30. In the meantime, we’ll be reporting and posting up a storm online at texasobserver.org.