Perry’s Latest Whoppers on Willingham

by Published on

Gov. Rick Perry is going all-in to defend the 2004 execution of Cameron Todd Willingham.

(Background on Willingham, who was almost assuredly innocent, is here.)

The governor, speaking with reporters after a speech at the Texas Association of Realtors today, made some shocking comments.

Quorum Report was there and has a dispatch. The Houston Chronicle has posted an audio recording of Perry’s comments.

I’ll take Perry’s assertions one at a time.

“Willingham was a monster. This was a guy who murdered his three children, who tried to beat his wife into an abortion so that he wouldn’t have those kids. Person after person has stood up and testified to facts of this case that quite frankly you all aren’t covering. And I would suggest to you that you go back and look at the record here because this is a bad man.”

This parrots the prosecution’s arguments in the case. There was no motive for Willingham to kill his kids. So at trial they tried to paint him as a “monster.” Some of their evidence for this was Willingham’s rock posters that contained violent images, according to the must-read New Yorker story.

Now, Willingham was no a saint. He did abuse his wife (though they don’t give you the death penalty for that.) But there’s no evidence that he ever harmed his kids.

Willingham’s character is particularly well developed in David Grann’s New Yorker story. You can read it and decide for yourself if this man was a “monster.”

Perry also told reporters that Willingham’s case had been reviewed by numerous courts. That’s true. But most of those courts weren’t informed of the mitigating evidence in the case — as Rick Perry was.

It was only shortly before Willingham’s execution that Gerald Hurst, an Austin arson expert, got a chance to examine the evidence in the case. He quickly saw that the forensic evidence against Willingham was incorrect and outdated.

A half-dozen national fire experts have since studied the case and reached the same conclusion: the fire at Willingham’s house was accidental.

I’ll repeat: Most of the courts ruled on the case before Hurst’s report; the judges didn’t have the mitigating evidence. Rick Perry, and the Board of Pardons and Paroles did have it, and they allowed the execution anyway.

Perry also asserts that:

[T]hat study that Mr. (Craig) Beyler came forward with is nothing more than propaganda by the anti-death penalty people across this country.”

This statement would be funny if we weren’t talking about a life and death issue here.

Craig Beyler is one of the preeminent fire experts in the nation, which is why the Perry-appointed Forensic Science Commission contracted Beyler to study the case. He’s a scientist, not an activist. He works with Hughes and Associates, an engineering and fire protection firm in Baltimore.

This case has become shrouded in death-penalty politics, but it’s still about the science of detecting arson.

Beyler submitted his report on the case to the Forensic Science Commission in late August.

You can read the Beyler report here (it’s a a pdf posted by the Statesman).

You can read it and decide for yourself if it’s a scientific examination of the evidence in the case or “propaganda by the anti-death penalty people.”

It’s becoming clear that Perry has no defense for his actions on the Willingham case.

And it’s ballooning into a major scandal for the governor.

Dave Mann has been with the Observer since 2003. Before that, he worked as a reporter in Fort Worth and Washington, D.C. He was born and raised in Philadelphia. He thinks border collies are the world’s greatest dogs, and believes in the nourishing powers of pickup basketball.