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Texas Governor Perry May Have Put a Lid on Arson Report

Posted by Libby Shaw

Republican Governor Rick Perry

Republican Governor Rick Perry

According to the Houston Chronicle Perry received an arson report from an expert in 2004 but he won’t reveal if he read it before Todd Willingham was executed.

In a letter sent Feb. 14, three days before Willingham was scheduled to die, Perry had been asked to postpone the execution. The condemned man’s attorney argued that the newly obtained expert evidence showed Willingham had not set the house fire that killed his daughters, 2-year-old Amber and 1-year-old twins Karmon and Kameron, two days before Christmas in 1991.

On Feb. 17, the day of the execution, Perry’s office got the five-page faxed report at 4:52 p.m., according to documents the Houston Chronicle obtained in response to a public records request.

But it’s unclear from the records whether he read it that day. Perry’s office has declined to release any of his or his staff’s comments or analysis of the reprieve request.

A statement from Perry spokesman Chris Cutrone, sent to the Chronicle late Friday, said that “given the brevity of (the) report and the general counsel’s familiarity with all the other facts in the case, there was ample time for the general counsel to read and analyze the report and to brief the governor on its content.”

A few minutes after 5 p.m., defense lawyer Walter M. Reaves Jr. said he received word that the governor would not intervene. At 6:20 p.m. Willingham was executed after declaring: “I am an innocent man, convicted of a crime I did not commit.”

Cameron Todd Willingham, executed in Texas

Cameron Todd Willingham, executed in Texas

In the past, as recently as during George W. Bush’s term, gubernatorial reviews were made public. Rick Perry, however, does not believe any of his or his staff reviews should be.

A Forensic Science Commission was about to disclose a report that seriously questions the arson evidence in the Willingham case. But Perry had immediately fired three of the Commission’s members, including the Chairman. The meeting at which the report would have been revealed was canceled.

His 2004 execution gained renewed prominence this year after the newly formed Texas Forensic Science Commission, created by the Legislature to explore and fix forensic flaws, released a report that criticized the arson evidence. Two days before the panel was to review that report, Perry abruptly replaced three members, including the chairman, and the meeting was canceled. The governor also attacked the report, according to other media reports.

The report reveals that the investigators in Willingham’s case made serious errors and had relied on junk science.

The five-page opinion faxed to Perry’s office on Willingham’s execution day in 2004 was the first. It said investigators made “major errors” and relied on discredited techniques akin to an “old wives tale.”

It was authored by Dr. Gerald Hurst, an Austin-based arson expert who holds a doctorate in chemistry from Cambridge University.

By 2004, Hurst already had received national media coverage for helping to obtain a string of high-profile exonerations by debunking arson evidence in other criminal cases. Hurst said in an interview that his previous analysis of flaws in another Texas arson-murder case had helped prompt the Board of Pardons and Paroles in 1998 to free a woman convicted of setting a fire that killed her infant son. She had served six years of a 99-year sentence.

By his actions one can only assume that Governor Rick Perry is attempting to cover up his negligence. Otherwise, he would admit if he did nor or did not read the report. For a man with 20 executions on his watch, one would think Governor Perry should, at the very least, want to know if the state has executed an innocent man. A person’s life is far, far more important than an election outcome.

Please call Rick Perry’s office and demand that he release all reports at 512 463 1782. Please also check Scott Cobb’s post over at the The Burnt Orange Report and Daily Kos. He provides links to a petition and the site to send an email to Perry.

Texas must immediately declare a moratorium on all executions until a complete and thorough review of all procedures on all levels is done by an outside, non-partisan board of experts. One innocent death is one too many.

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