What Perry Knew About Willingham

by Published on

Just hours before Cameron Todd Willingham was put to death for a crime he likely didn’t commit, Gov. Rick Perry’s office received clear mitigating evidence that showed the forensics in Willingham’s case were flawed.

What did Perry’s office receive?

We know — from Lise Olsen’s story in Sunday’s Houston Chronicle – that Willingham’s lawyer sent a five-page fax to Perry’s office on Feb. 17, 2004, just 88 minutes before the scheduled execution.

In that five-page fax was a report from Dr. Gerald Hurst, a nationally renowned fire expert who’s helped exonerate dozens of people. In his report, Hurst said the forensic evidence against Willingham — a man about to be executed — was outdated and incorrect. Hurst concludes that the 1991 fire that killed Willingham’s three kids was accidental.

I’ve posted the full report here (it’s in pdf format).

You can read for yourself exactly what Perry and his staff saw before they OK’d Willingham’s execution.

(A note about the report: Hurst is a scientist, and the report can be technical in parts, but it’s understandable to a layperson.)

Hurst wrote:

As will be shown later, most of the conclusions reached by the Fire Marshall [in this case] would be considered invalid in light of current knowledge.”

One-by-one, Hurst debunks the supposed evidence that the fire at Willingham’s house was arson: the pour patterns, the multiple origins, the V-shaped burn patterns, the burns under the door threshold, the burned tiles, the supposed presence of gasoline, the crazed glass, the brown burn patterns on the porch.

This is the essence of the case. It’s inconsequential whether Willingham was a nice guy or a “monster,” as Perry contended yesterday.

The central issue is whether a crime was committed.

You would think that a report from a nationally respected scientist like Hurst that challenged the forensic evidence in a death penalty case would give someone pause before allowing an execution to go forward. Why not postpone the execution to check the veracity of Hurst’s conclusions? Perry has postponed and rescheduled executions many times.

We don’t yet know what kind of attention Perry’s office gave Hurst’s report. (Perry’s office has refused to release the relevant records.)

But it doesn’t really matter whether they read and ignored the report or never even looked at it.

Either way, Perry’s office knew — or should have known — before the execution that Willingham’s case was flawed.

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.