Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Fear and Governning in Austin Texas

Some of you may have already heard about the Cameron Todd Willingham case. In a nutshell, Willingham was convicted of arson and murdering his wife and children in said arson. Since the conviction (which Willingham maintained his innocence), and even during the trial, where he turned down a plea offer for life in prison, new evidence has come out suggesting that the fire was NOT arson. This new evidence led to Willingham's attorneys asking for a stay of execution for their client. In fact, they submitted a request on the day of Willingham's scheduled execution at 4:52pm. At just after 5pm that same day Texas Governor Rick Perry stated that he wouldn't intervene. Willingham was executed about an hour later.

There was to be an inquiry into the execution of Willingham, particularly to the question of whether or not the State of Texas executed an innocent man. The board was set to convene, when Governor Perry fired 3 of the panel members (including the chair). The new board, with a chair appointed by Governor Perry consequently cancelled the hearing. Governor Perry has now canned a fourth member of the committee (he can only remove four, the remaining five are appointed by other state officials). Governor Perry has essentially stated that the inquiry is unnecessary because he's convinced Willingham is guilty. As Publius wrote in the article linked above,

Of course, his motive is fairly clear. Perry contributed to the execution of an innocent person. And the formal recognition that Texas executed an innocent man would trigger a massive political earthquake -- one that would clarify to an inattentive public the utter barbarity and immorality of Texas's criminal justice system.

So yes, I can understand Perry's motives. But it doesn't change the fact that he is acting in a profoundly immoral way. The whole thing reminds me of a banana republic dictator clumsily covering up his crimes.

But in addition to making me mad, I'm hopeful that this story will change some "hearts and minds." Specifically, I hope that social conservatives (particularly in Texas) take some time to reflect on the implications of the fact that Texas executed an innocent person -- and that Rick Perry is trying to cover it up. It's hard to think of something that more directly contradicts the "culture of life."
The problem in this instance isn't that the Death Penalty exists. While I am reluctant to advocate its use, I believe that its presence in and of itself does serve as a deterrent. There are enough criminals who manage to lead very productive lives even in prison and enough violent crimes that take place in prison to suggest that merely putting someone in prison for the rest of their life might not be sufficient as a deterrent, and the presence of capital punishment as a possible sentence might affect actions that otherwise might have occurred. The problem comes with its utilization - in order for it to be defensible as a sentencing tool, it needs to be rare and reserved only for the most clearly brazenly guilty.

No, the issues isn't with the existence of capital punishment, rather the issue is with Governor Perry's brazen cover up of his mistake. He knows that he did something completely and utterly indefensible and he's trying to deflect attention. He has gone on the record stating that he believes Willingham was guilty, so the execution was justified. However, the key piece of evidence of the murder (the arson) has been called into legitimate question by renowned arson experts such as Austin forensics expert Gerald Hurst and Baltimore Forensics expert Craig Beyler, and Governor Perry doesn't want this information getting out. This cover-up is what is at issue. As far as I know, nobody is calling Cameron Todd Willingham an angel - they're merely stating that he likely didn't commit the murder for which he was executed - he was innocent. He was not convicted of any other heinous acts, and to execute him for reasons for which he wasn't convicted laughs in the face of our criminal justice system and our Constitution. He may have been a "monster" as Governor Perry refers to him, but that doesn't mean he was a murderer. And an inquiry that could have brought this to a final conclusion has been quashed by the person who could most benefit from its potential conclusion.

Kay Bailey Hutchison (a gubernatorial candidate) piles on in an eerily partisan manner.

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