During last night's debate, I was disappointed that Brian Williams, faced with the golden opportunity to specifically cite the Cameron Todd Willingham case in his interrogation of Texas Governor and newly-minted frontrunner Rick Perry, instead opted for a more generic set of questions on the death penalty. Williams could have used an earlier debate discussion of criticism that members of the field were "anti-science" to delve into the science that indicates that Willingham did not commit the crime his prosecutors said he committed, but he did not. The wait for a reporter to ask detailed questions of Rick Perry on this matter continues!
That said, I am cheered to see Esquire magazine take up the case, and cheered further still to see the excellent Tom Junod writing about it. In Junod's newly published piece, he gets pointed:
Rick Perry is a Christian. It does us no good to ask, as Christopher Hitchens did last week, if he really believes what he says he believes; better to take him at his word, for then we can hold him to it. That is, we can see if he's a Christian not only by word, but by deed -- if he is Christian by the proclaimed standards of Christianity.
That's the prelude to the question, "But what if he signed the death warrant for an innocent man?" And on that matter, Junod brings in some important details about the pressure that Perry put on Sam Bassett, the Austin defense attorney originally appointed to chair the Texas Forensic Science Commission, which took up the Willingham case soon after it was empanelled:
In 2008, the Commission held a meeting to determine what cases to investigate, and decided to look into the complaint raised by the Innocence Project about the conviction of Todd Willingham. According to Bassett, who spoke recently to The Politics Blog, the attorney general of Texas was present at the meeting, and gave his approval to the investigation. But when the Commission hired an independent investigator to examine the arson investigation upon which Willingham's execution was predicated, Bassett says that he was called into the Governor's office and "read the riot act" by Perry's lawyers. "I was told that I did not have jurisdiction to investigate the case, which was odd, since the Attorney General was at the meeting where we decided to go ahead with the investigation."
Bassett reviewed the law that created the Commission, and decided to go ahead with the investigation despite the Governor's opposition. A year later, the independent investigator completed his investigation and found that not only did the arson investigators in the Willingham case fail to meet current scientific standards, it failed to meet the standards that were in place at the time the investigation began in 1991. Indeed, the independent investigator concluded that there was no scientific basis for Willingham's conviction, and in September 2009, Bassett moved to a hold a public hearing about the case. Days before the hearing was convened, he says he received a call from Rick Perry's spokeswoman. His term had expired, and because he "served at the governor's pleasure," he was not being reappointed. "I was told the governor had decided to 'go in a different direction,'" Bassett says.
From there, Bassett was replaced with Williamson County District Attorney John Bradley -- a political ally of Perry's. And as I've run down here, Bradley distinguished himself mainly by going to great lengths to delay and impede the commission's investigation of the Willingham execution. Perhaps the most significant move Bradley made was restructuring the commission into subcommittees, one of which (the one he appointed himself to chair) would tackle the Willingham case. By shunting the commission's work into smaller groups, Bradley managed to evade Texas' Open Meetings Act -- which only applied to meetings for which there was a set quorum of the whole. Craig Beyler, the independent investigator mentioned above, backed Bassett's contention that the commission's work had been subverted by political pressure, writing to commission coordinator Leigh Tomlin, "Sadly, the political influence which has been exercised with respect to the commission has compromised the integrity of the enterprise."
Esquire and Junod deserve your readership for keeping the light burning on this case, so go read the whole thing.
Rick Perry, Christian: What Would Pilate Do? [The Politics Blog @ Esquire]
PREVIOUSLY, on the HUFFINGTON POST:
Rick Perry Deserves Scrutiny For His Role In The Execution Of Cameron Todd Willingham