Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Denial thrives in Texas

Remember Cameron Todd Willingham? The Texan executed in 2004 for murdering his 3 kids in a fire that experts now agree should never have been labeled arson? Not only does his prosecutor (now a judge) refuse to acknowledge the possibility that Willingham may have been innocent, but the Governor who signed his death warrant doesn't seem to want to face the realities of the case, either.

The Texas Forensic Science Commission had hired arson expert Craig Beyler to review the case. It was Beyler's report that sparked so much discussion of Willingham's case in August. After that report was released, Gov. Perry referred to Beyler, one of the foremost fire experts in the nation, as a "supposed expert" (his airquotes clearly implied) and steadfastly maintained that he had seen nothing that made him question his decision to sign Willingham's death warrant. Both the former prosecutor and the governor deserve to be mocked more than a little for their total denial of Beyler's findings (which have mirrored the findings of several other top fire experts).

But the Governor has now taken his denial a step further. Today, the Governor abruptly removed three members of the commission. The Governor says there is nothing political or questionable about the removals: their terms were up and it's within his power to appoint new commissioners. This sounds reasonable enough until we realize that the commission was scheduled to review the Willingham report on Friday, a meeting that will now not happen as 1/3 of the commission seats are now open. And it had not been an uncommon practice for the sitting commissioners to have their appointments renewed. So it's pretty hard to ignore the very convenient timing of the Governor's decision not to renew these three appointments on the eve of a meeting that could have ended with the commission declaring that the state, on Gov. Perry's watch, had executed an innocent man.

Gov. Perry, Judge Jackson, it's time to take your heads out of the sand. I'm not asking you to state definitively that you made a mistake in this case. I just want you to acknowledge that it's a possibility. It's going to be very hard for an honest discussion of the death penalty and issues relating to wrongful convictions to go forward until you do. Maybe that's your goal, or maybe you just couldn't live with the guilt of murdering an innocent man. Either way, it's time for you two to man up. If you're so sure the death penalty is a viable punishment, then you should both be a little more willing to address its failures. One way to ensure we get more wrongful convictions is to ignore the lessons we could learn from the wrongful convictions we know about. But we can't get anywhere when people doggedly cling to the notion that they couldn't have made a mistake.

Executing an innocent man would be bad enough, but refusing to accept even the possibility of a mistake is cowardly, reckless, and just plain immoral.

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