Once again, Texas prosecutors have successfully stalled proceedings which almost certainly will establish that Texas executed Cameron Todd Willingham in 2004 for a crime he did not commit. Willingham’s relatives had sought a court of inquiry before Judge Charles Baird in Austin to present new evidence of Willingham’s innocence for the first time in a court of law. Prosecutors argued that the judge was biased and should be disqualified. When Judge Baird did not agree, prosecutors sought an order from the Texas 3rd Court of Appeals that he should recuse himself, or refer the recusal motion to another judge. Yesterday, that court granted the prosecution’s request, and for now, the fate of the court of inquiry remains uncertain. This latest maneuver is part of a broader pattern by Texas prosecutors and political actors to stall and thwart proceedings seeking to uncover the truth that Texas has executed innocent people.
Willingham steadfastly maintained his innocence of the arson-murder of his three children at the family home. Just months before his scheduled execution, an investigation by a leading national fire science expert revealed that the forensic science in Willingham’s trial — the crux of the prosecution’s evidence against him — had been wrong: the fire was an accident, not arson. The expert submitted his report to Gov. Rick Perry in Willingham’s request for clemency. But Gov. Perry did not review the critical report, and allowed Willingham’s execution to proceed.
After his death, Willingham’s family members asked the Texas Forensic Science Commission to review the case; the commission agreed to consider it. But just days before it was set to release key findings, Gov. Perry replaced critical commission members and appointed Williamson County District Attorney John Bradley, a close political ally, as chairman of the commission. This shakeup delayed the commission’s investigation. It’s now set to meet again on the Willingham case on January 7, but Gov. Perry’s political wrangling has severely compromised its appearance of objectivity. In the meantime, Willingham’s family turned to another avenue, the court of inquiry.
Gov. Perry and Bradley have made no secret that they disapprove of a court of inquiry in Willingham’s case. But Gov. Perry did not voice the same concerns when Judge Baird conducted an identical proceeding in the case of Tim Cole. Cole died in prison, serving a 25-year sentence for a rape he did not commit. At the request of his relatives, Judge Baird held a court of inquiry, where he heard testimony that another man had confessed to the rape and received DNA evidence that cleared Cole. Judge Baird ruled that Cole had been wrongfully convicted. Gov. Perry recognized Judge Baird’s finding and granted Cole a posthumous pardon. Of course, Cole, unlike Willingham, was not executed on Gov. Perry’s watch.
The 3rd Court of Appeals ruling yesterday marks the second time this month prosecutors have sought intervention by appeals courts to prevent evidence about the Willingham case from moving forward. In nearby Houston, defense lawyers representing John Green, a man charged with murder and facing the death penalty, had attempted to present evidence about Willingham’s wrongful execution in their challenge to the constitutionality of the Texas death penalty system on grounds that it risks execution of the innocent. The Court of Criminal Appeals had at first refused to get involved, but after the hearing actually began, it changed its mind and halted proceedings. Like the Willingham court of inquiry, it is unclear whether the Green hearing will resume.
These extraordinarily transparent moves reveal that Texas prosecutors and politicians refuse to take a hard look at the serious flaws in the state’s death penalty system that has likely resulted in the execution of innocent people. They would be well-served to spend less time avoiding the truth-seeking process, and more time examining whether Texas has executed an innocent person.
If Gov. Perry, Bradley, and Texas prosecutors truly trust in Willingham’s conviction and execution, they should welcome the court of inquiry and other proceedings and let the evidence speak for itself. The maneuvering to avoid the proceedings only serves to undermine public confidence in Texas’ death penalty system that much more.
One day, hopefully soon, Texas prosecutors and politicians will not be able to prevent the truth from surfacing any longer. Until then, Texas’s death penalty system will unconscionably tolerate the risk of executing another innocent person.