The head of a Texas anti-death penalty group has accused that state’s governor of scuttling an investigation into a possible wrongful execution for political reasons.
“[Texas Governor Rick] Perry saw the writing on the wall,” Scott Cobb, president of the Texas Moratorium Network, told CNN. “He moved to cover that up.”
The “writing on the wall” Cobb was referring to was the investigation by the Texas Forensic Science Commission into the execution of Cameron Todd Willingham, who was put to death in 2004 for the 1991 arson deaths of his three daughters.
Forensic investigations done since Willingham’s conviction have found no evidence of arson. Nonetheless, Perry refused to grant Willingham a stay of execution in 2004, even though credible questions had already been raised about Willingham’s guilt.
On Wednesday, Gov. Perry ordered the removal of three members of the forensics commission, and instituted a “political ally,” as CNN described him, to head the committee. That ally is reported to have ordered the investigation into Willingham’s execution delayed indefinitely, saying he “couldn’t begin to guess” when the commission would reconvene.
As CNN’s Randi Kaye noted, since Willingham’s conviction, “three forensic investigations found there was no evidence of arson. None.”
What’s more, as RAW STORY reported in August, Gov. Perry was informed before Willingham’s execution that the claim of arson made by fire officials and the prosecution in the 1991 trial was likely unfounded.
Put together, those facts may make Gov. Perry “the first governor in history to preside over the death of [a known] innocent man,” CNN stated in a report aired Friday.
“Critics suggest he’s trying to delay or maybe even derail the state’s own investigation” into the Willingham case, CNN’s Kaye stated. And the reasons for it may be quite obvious: The commission’s final report would likely have arrived weeks before the primary gubernatorial election Perry faces next year.
Asked about the removal of the three commissioners, Perry stated: “Those individuals’ terms were up, so we replaced them. There’s nothing out of the ordinary there.”
But, as the Fort Worth Star-Telegram notes, some of those removed had already had their terms renewed.
CNN’s Kaye noted that Perry “declined to make the time for an interview” for its report.
ACLU: ‘EXTREMELY SUSPICIOUS’ TIMING
“Gov. Perry said that the change was ‘business as usual,'” the ACLU wrote on its blog Friday. “Unfortunately, his words ring all too true. Willingham is not the first likely innocent person executed by the State of Texas. Others include Carlos De Luna and Ruben Cantu. But the state has never acknowledged any of these tragic mistakes. Business as usual, all right.”
The ACLU statement described the governor’s timing for the removal of the three commissioners as “extremely suspicious, to say the least.”
But some observers have gone further. Glenn W. Smith at FireDogLake states that Gov. Perry may have violated federal law when he shut down the investigation into Willingham’s execution.
Smith argues Perry could be prosecuted under USC.18.1001, which makes it a crime for anyone “in any matter within the jurisdiction of the executive, legislative, or judicial branch of the Government of the United States” to “falsify, conceal, or cover up by any trick, scheme, or device a material fact.”
The federal statute applies, Smith argues, because Texas takes money from the federal government for its justice system, and the funding guidelines refer to the law directly.
“If firing three members of the commission and bringing to a screaming halt an investigation and hearing about the execution of an innocent man is not a trick to cover up material facts, nothing is,” Smith wrote.
The following video was broadcast on CNN’s AC 360 on Friday, Oct. 2. 2009.