Cameron Todd Willingham was executed in the Texas death chamber in February 2004 for the 1992 arson that caused the deaths of his three young daughters. Shortly before Willingham's execution, Governor Rick Perry was presented with a report that raised serious questions about the arson investigation, and presented convincing evidence that the fire was not arson at all, and that Willingham was innocent of the crime. Governor Perry refused to consider this evidence and allowed the execution to go through.
Since the execution, Rick Perry has used his power a Governor to block the work of the Texas Forensic Science Commission, which has recently attempted to further review the overwhelming scientific evidence that Willingham was not guilty, and that in fact the fire was a tragic accident. The details can be read here, in an outstanding article by Jason Linkins in the Huffington Post.
Perry's suppression of the work of this committee is disturbing, not only because he is preventing the likely exoneration of an innocent man who was wrongly put to death, but because this case has far-reaching implications on the ethics of the use of capital punishment itself. If the evidence shows that Cameron Todd Willingham was not guilty, then his death calls into serious question the morality of the use of the death penalty, and provides a strong argument for its abolition.
Furthermore, the efforts of Governor Perry to suppress the evidence of Willingham's guilt, and the fact that Perry was presented with and ignored this evidence before the execution when he had a chance to stop or at least postpone it, has to call into serious question the conscience of a man who has a serious chance of becoming the next president of the United States.
It is worth noting that Rick Perry, in his time as Governor of Texas, has overseen 234 executions to date, by far the most of any Governor, even topping his predecessor, George W Bush, by more than 80. The Willingham case is certainly not the only among Perry's executions that has been controversial. This June, Milton Mathis was put to death in Texas despite strong evidence that he was mentally impaired. Back in 2001, Perry had vetoed a bill passed by the Texas legislature that would have prohibited the execution of anyone who was mentally retarded.
I have long opposed the death penalty under any circumstances, both on ethical and practical grounds. I believe that deliberately killing another human being is morally wrong. I also believe that the death penalty is inherently flawed in that inevitably mistakes will be made, that the imperfection of the judicial process will lead unavoidably to innocent people being put to death.
But it seems to me that even those who advocate capital punishment should be disturbed by Rick Perry's seemingly callous disregard for evidence that, had he paid attention to it, could have prevented the execution of a man who was most likely innocent of the crime for which he was put to death; and by Perry's subsequent transparent attempts to prevent further review of that evidence.
Again, this is a man who may well be our next President. Think about that.