The death penalty and Texas politics

You may know about this already -- and if so you may know more than I do. But here's the background as I understand it: the evidence suggests that a man who was executed in Texas in 2005, Cameron Todd Willingham, was innocent of the crime he was sentenced for: deliberately setting a fire that killed his wife and three young daughters. [Edited: sorry for the error.] A commission was later established to investigate how forensic science is carried out in Texas, but now that said commission is getting around to making a determination on the Willingham case, it's been disrupted by Governor Rick Perry's dismissing and replacing the four members whose seats are under his control. (He also reportedly tried to put pressure on the commission.) Perry, you will not be surprised to learn, was governor at the time of Willingham's execution, and he allowed it to go forward despite receiving word of apparently compelling evidence that the condemned man was not guilty. Perry is also currently running for reelection, and presumably would be hurt if the commission were to rule that he had acted improperly.I hadn't been following any of this until this week, so I'm relying on bloggers who have, like Publius of Obsidian Wings and Scott Horton at Harper's. And I still have plenty of reading to do: I'm starting with David Grann's New Yorker article about Willingham's case. Publius linked to this article from the Houston Chronicle that fills in the details on what's happening now. And, via Horton, here's the report the Texas commission was examining. That said, what seems worth noting to me, even before I've examined the details for myself, is how it's playing out politically. Publius was hopeful that this sorry affair might prompt some productive soul-searching:

[I]n 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."

He was specifically hoping Perry's opponent in the gubernatorial race, Kay Bailey Hutchinson, would try to gain some ground by proposing a serious evaluation of the death penalty as it is applied in Texas, or just under Rick Perry (if not in general). So far that seems unlikely. As John Cole notes, Hutchinson decided it would be more to her advantage to attack Perry from the right. Here's her campaign's official statement on the matter:

As hard as Rick Perrys office and his campaign may try to divert from the issue, this is not about one man or one case. The issue is Rick Perrys heavy-handed politicization of a process and Commission established by the legislature to provide critical oversight. First, Rick Perry delayed the formation of the Texas Forensic Science Commission, then he tried to ensure it didnt have funding and when all else failed, he fired everyone he could. The only thing Rick Perrys actions have accomplished is giving liberals an argument to discredit the death penalty. Kay Bailey Hutchison is a steadfast supporter of the death penalty, voted to reinstate it when she served in the Texas House and believes we should never do anything to create a cloud of controversy over it with actions that look like a cover-up.

So: the problem is not the possibility that an innocent person was executed in the name of justice; the problem is that acting like you have something to hide afterward makes the death penalty look bad -- which is just what the liberals want! Does the fact that I find this response noteworthy just prove I'm not from Texas? I think I'm with Jim Newell at Wonkette on this: "Theres probably something wrong with your stance if you and your communications staff cant, just cannot, come up [with] something that doesnt sound completely sociopathic."

Mollie Wilson O’​Reilly is editor-at-large and columnist at Commonweal.

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