Perry shoots the messenger

The Texas Forensic Science Commission was about to hear a real expert on arson deconstruct the “expert” testimony that sent an innocent man to his death. Gov. Rick Perry, who signed the death warrant in the face of evidence of innocence, just fired the Chairman and two other members of the Commission, thus depriving it of a quorum. Elegant: in a sick, twisted way.

The State of Texas killed Cameron Todd Willingham for a crime he almost certainly didn’t commit. He was convicted of murder on the basis of junk-science expert testimony about the origins of the fire that killed his three infant daughters, plus the testimony of a jailhouse snitch about Willingham’s “confession.”

Too late to do Willingham any good, the Texas Legislature created a Forensic Science Commission with the power to investigate the competence (vel non) of the folks who offer forensic testimony.   The Commission, in turn, had found an actual expert on arson, and this Friday that expert was going to deliver his verdict on the evidence against Willingham.

That might have been embarrassing for Gov. Rick Perry, who had refused to postpone Willingham’s execution despite the already-extant evidence of his innocence.   Perry – in the midst of a primary fight with Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, and figuring, no doubt, that his current karmic burden had already earned him so many consecutive lifetimes as a castrated hamster with the shingles that he had nothing left to lose – found an elegantly Gordian solution to his problem:  he just fired the Chairman of the commission and two other members, thus depriving the Commission of a quorum.*  Perry, fighting hard for the “ignorant Yahoo” vote so crucial in Southern Republican primaries, had already denounced the “supposed experts” who insisted on keeping the actual, y’know, science in forensic science.

Wouldn’t it be wonderful if Hutchison decided to make this an issue?

Update Ask, and ye shall receive:  Hutchison goes there.  Cautiously, yes, but she goes there.  If someone lost a Texas Republican primary for allowing a wrongful execution, that would be revolution.

*Correction The Commission still has a quorum, but the new Chairman appointed by Perry quickly cancelled the hearing and won’t say whether it will ever be held.

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact:

13 thoughts on “Perry shoots the messenger”

  1. Perry named his own replacements for the commissioners he fired, so I don't know whether there's a quorum issue. I'd be interested to hear how he decides whether an alleged expert really is one, assuming he pretends to be able to tell the difference.

  2. While I generally agree with Mark on most issues, on this one he's missing the point.

    The point is, Texans enjoy executing people. Sure, it's atavistic, but that's where they are.

  3. Quiddity, I grant your point, sort of, but am not sure it's really the point. The 3 commissioners Perry fired (technically, declined to reappoint) also are Texans, & presumably not opposed to the death penalty as a general matter. The wrongly executed man (I imagine there are others) was a Texan. There are other Texans who maybe can be led to draw the line, if fitfully, at killing an innocent man. So here's the thing: the Willingham case finally, at long last, looks to have begun to offend against even the Texan concept of justice, or some Texans'. When we've reached the point that even the state's major newspapers, which generally contemplate the slaughter in Huntsville w/ serenity, are shocked by the Governor's conduct, it's too easy for non-Texans just to drop it w/ a casual, "Forget it, Jake. It's Chinatown." It may be it's no longer just a futile moral obligation to raise the issue. It could be that there's beginning to be a practical political point to it. Just maybe, Rick Perry can be made to pay a professional price for killing Cameron Todd Willingham.

    I said before that Perry named replacements. In fact he named only 2, & hasn't yet appointed a new commissioner to the seat reserved for a defense attorney.

  4. "… his current karmic burden had already earned him so many consecutive lifetimes as a castrated hamster with the shingles that he had nothing left to lose …"

    Whow, Mark. You're into serious Walcott territory here. Is there a place where us mortals can acculturate this divine level of snark or are we condemned to live out or lives with the meager talent the gods dispensed on us when our names came up?

  5. A hamster's lifetime is only a couple of years, presumably less with shingles. In this case, is it better, or less bad, to be reincarnated with a short lifespan or a long one?

  6. To lay my feelings down on the table, my base belief about Texas is that I'd love to have a time machine, and to go back to enable Santa Anna to win his war. Frankly, the state is a blot on the USA, and that's in competition with a number of states who are ignorant, evil and proud of it.

    I'd say that it's a good sign that even Texan newspapers are squeamish, but I don't expect much. The evil, ignorant and proud (EIP) faction is strong, and very useful to the evil, knowlegeable and rich faction (EKR).

  7. "Vel no" turns out to be a Latin phrase. When I read the passage out loud, I was sure it was Yiddish. Same difference. As for Hutchinson running on this, I agree with Quiddity. I'm not sure how wise it would be to tell Texans that the death penalty isn't such a great thing and that you want to make it harder to impose it.

  8. Mark: I was deliberately overstating my case. But there sure seems to be in Texas a desire to kill quickly (most recently with the judge Keller episode). I'm reminded of Dr. Death – who figured in the movie The Thin Blue Line. A minor character in that film, but he was brought in by prosecutors throughout Texas to give a virtually-certain diagnosis that would likely lead to a death sentence.

    Also, we've got to remember that human killing (often as a "sacrifice") was fairly common a few thousand years ago. Whether the result of culture or DNA, it's not clear that that desire has been completely extinguished. As you point out, maybe it's different this time and Perry will pay a price and Texas will change it's attitude. I hope so.

  9. There are five major metro papers in Texas (Austin American-Statesman, Dallas Morning News, Fort Worth Star-Telegram, Houston Chronicle, and San Antonio Express News), and as of 5 pm Central Time on Oct. 1 none of them has this story on the front page of their websites. Gov. Perry’s cousin was killed by deputies in Montague County elsewhere in the state, but his cancellation of this panel is not getting the attention you might think it deserves, based on this single criterion.

    Interpret this as you see fit.

  10. Ed, not to dwell, but in addition to straight news reports on this, I find criticism:

    (1) An editorial in last Friday’s Dallas Morning News, “Perry’s Certainty About Execution Ignores Science” (25 Sept), criticizing his “supposed experts” comment. (This preceded the firings.)

    (2) A Lisa Falkenberg column in yesterday’s Houston Chronicle, “Is Perry Pulling a Nixon?” (30 Sept).

    (3) Also yesterday, a post by Michael Landauer, “Rick Perry Blocks Search for Truth in Todd Willingham Case” (30 Sept), on his Texas Death Penalty Blog – which has offered reasonably competent coverage of the issue since, I think, June – at the Morning News site .

    (4) An editorial in today’s Fort Worth Star-Telegram, “Texas Governor Derails Important Review of Forensics in Willingham Murder Case” (1 Oct).

    (5) Also today, an editorial in the Morning News, “Perry’s Willingham Delay” (1 Oct). (This was posted after your 5 PM cutoff time.)

    I was able to find a couple of these items presto chango just now from the papers' front pages, but take your word for it about the rest. I find nothing from the American Statesman or Express News but straight news accounts.

    It may be that Perry can't be made to pay a price for this w/in Texas, or not one that costs him an election. I don't know. But if he foresees a national future, non-Texans can at least do their part to ensure he never forgets the name or face of Todd Willingham. And there are decent people in Texas; I know a few. They're perennial losers in its politics, but that's no reason to leave them to their own devices. There's no prospect that they'll succeed in eliminating the death penalty in Texas, but they may be able to mitigate its evils.

  11. I do feel better, K, that there is some reaction from Texans about this situation and that many are concerned about it. The Battle of San Jacinto is a done deal, so Barry and I have to live with that reality. I will follow up on those stories.

  12. "If someone lost a Texas Republican primary for allowing a wrongful execution, that would be revolution."

    Texas is an open primary state. You join the party for a year by voting in the primary of that party. The evangelicals have dominated the Republican party for two decades now and the dominate the statewide offices. They have since 1994 when Bush was elected governor. That death penalty crap is typical of fundamentalist evangelicals.

    Now what happens if the Democrats do not have a tough contest in the primaries? A lot of Democrats hate Perry a lot more than they want to vote for the County Judge. I can see the Democrats voting for Hutchinson next Spring, and Perry's decision to stop the evaluation of junk science and Perry's clear political decision to let Todd Willingham be murdered by the state could be a big reason for a lot of people to vote against Perry in the Republican primary.

    Texas has been an agricultural and Oil company dominated state, but the influx of population have been moving to the cities. The culture in this state is changing towards civilization. The politics is lagging behind as it always does, but it is clear that with Houston, Dallas-Fort Worth, San Antonio and Austin this state is going to turn modern quite soon. That's exactly why the evangelicals have been so politically active, because they have seen it coming. The political activity of the conservative evangelicals is motivated by growing panic as they lose control of the state government. The demand for the death penalty has been a major plank in their political effort.

  13. Texas justice clouded by pseudoscience once again:… has a story on the use of dogs to sniff out suspects, and of a law enforcement officer who was wrongly accused of murder after the dogs "identified" him as the killer. Of course, the authorities are sticking to their guns and denying that they screwed up.

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