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Rick Perry’s Witch Trials


As Jim Moore explained, before making over George W. Bush, Karl Rove “created” Rick Perry—the man who succeeded Bush as governor of Texas and is now locked in a difficult Republican primary battle with Senator Kay Bailey Hutchinson. Through the Rovian makeover, Perry became a fierce advocate of the death penalty, a critic of judges who equivocate before implementing it, and an advocate of tort reform.

Some of this is now coming back to haunt Rick Perry. He executed 199 people, more than any governor in American history. He gave consistent short shrift to clemency appeals. Many of those appealing were likely guilty, but it is now clear that one was innocent and that this fact was flagged for Perry before he ordered him put to death. Cameron Todd Willingham was executed by lethal injection in 2004 on charges that he killed his minor children. The charges arose from a fire that occurred in his home on December 23, 1991. Investigators concluded that the fire resulted from arson. However, subsequent scientific reviews have all found that the arson investigation was grossly flawed and that its conclusions reflected base prejudices rather than science. The prosecutor, John Jackson, acknowledges that the arson investigation was flawed, but he remains convinced that Willingham is guilty for two reasons. The first is that he beat his wife and was therefore capable of killing his children. The second is that he liked heavy metal music and thus was presumptively a Satanist. Jackson has subsequently become a senior state court judge in Texas, another fine exemplar of the peculiar characteristics that make up a Texas judge.

The Texas justice system handled the Willingham case like the well-oiled machine it is—a machine designed to produce rapid-fire convictions and executions in capital cases. A conviction was secured in short order and the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals denied a writ of habeas corpus. The final call rested with Rick Perry. A clemency appeal was submitted to Perry that included a review of the forensic evidence by an expert, Gerald Hurst of Austin. Here’s what he told the governor: “The whole case was based on the purest form of junk science. There was no item of evidence that indicated arson.”

What was Perry’s reaction? Here’s how the conservative Dallas Morning News describes it in an editorial:

Gov. Rick Perry has not let expert reports or modern science shake his belief that Willingham must be a murderer. So certain is the governor that he’s delivered his own guilty verdict without bothering to wait for the Forensic Science Commission’s own conclusions in the case. Perry flippantly dismissed the findings of “supposed experts.” Just in case his sarcasm wasn’t evident, he added air quotes with his fingers to dismiss the nationally respected scientists.

Perry’s attitude perfectly matches that of the Corsicana, Texas, arson investigator on whose work the conviction rests, and whose credentials as an expert have been sharply discounted. “There is ‘science,’” he says, “and then there’s reality.”

That “reality” is apparently faith-based. The conviction of Todd Willingham rests on a rejection of science and a sincere, deeply held belief that someone who listens to heavy metal music must in fact be a Satanist and must therefore want to murder his children. Rick Perry therefore confidently gave science the back of the hand. Using his powers as governor, he fired the chair and two members of the Forensic Science Board and put political hacks in their place, with the apparent intention of blocking the board’s adoption of a report that concludes there was no scientific evidence to support the arson conviction.

The Willingham case and numerous other incidents relating to judicial misconduct out of Texas point to a criminal justice system which might compare unfavorably with the Salem witch trials of 1692-93. In the background stands Karl Rove and his strategy of extracting partisan political gain from the criminal justice system.

For more background on the Willingham case, watch the Nightline segment examining it here and here.

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