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Perry’s Disappearing Scandal

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It’s remarkable that Texas Gov. Rick Perry has survived most of an election year without discussing his most notorious scandal: the execution of Cameron Todd Willingham.

Willingham was sentenced to death for starting a 1991 house fire that killed his three children. In February 2004, on the eve of his execution, Willingham’s lawyer sent the governor’s office credible evidence that the case against Willingham was flawed. A nationally renowned fire expert had looked at the forensic evidence and concluded it was outdated—a set of “old wives tales” that arson experts had since disproved. The fire at the Willingham house was likely accidental.

If there had been no arson, then Texas was about to execute an innocent man. (Eight additional arson experts have looked at the case and concluded the evidence was bunk.) Willingham’s attorney requested a stay. Perry said no. It’s not clear the governor even read the fire expert’s report before letting the execution go forward.

Not only did Perry proceed based on questionable evidence, but when the Texas Forensic Science Commission began probing the case, the governor intervened. Last fall, he slowed the process by replacing three commission members, including its chairman. It looked like a cover-up, and for a few fervid weeks in late 2009, the Willingham case became a major political scandal. Perry was hammered in the Texas press, in The New York Times and on CNN.

Now the Willingham scandal has all but disappeared. Perry’s opponents in the GOP primary and the general election haven’t mentioned it. Reporters rarely ask about it. With Perry disinclined to appear at a single gubernatorial debate this fall, it’s less likely that Willingham’s name will be uttered in Perry’s presence before Election Day.

However, on Sept. 17—just as this issue of the Observer is published—the Forensic Science Commission is scheduled to release its final report on the case. In its preliminary report in late July, the commission concluded the evidence against Willingham was “flawed.”

We’re not sure how far the nine commissioners will go in their final report, or what impact the findings might have on the governor’s race. We do know this: The record suggests that Perry ignored key evidence, may have allowed an innocent man to be executed and later stalled an investigation into the matter. Those are serious charges. The governor must not be allowed to evade them.