Terrance Heath

Death's Own Party, Pt. 2

Filed By Terrance Heath | September 20, 2011 2:00 PM | comments

Filed in: Politics
Tags: death penalty, GOP, GOP presidential debate, health care reform, Republican debates, Republican party, Rick Perry

Even Republicans are having funny reactions to their last debate. One Huntsman staffer said she’s “sick and sad” over the behavior of the crowd at the last two debates. Funny. “sick and sad” is exactly how some of us would describe that behavior.

Funnier still? Even Rick Perry was “taken aback.” Taken aback? Perry got even more applause for touting his record of 234 executions on his watch as governor of Texas.

Never struggled? Perry’s body count even surpasses that of famed “Texecutioner” George W. Bush, who racked up 152 executions during his term as Texas governor. Perry has managed to beat Bush by more than 80 executions, and will probably make it 100 if he doesn’t end up moving to the White House. And he never struggled with it? Not even once? There is at least one case Perry should have struggled with.

Cameron Todd Willingham

I’m talking about the case of Cameron Todd Willingham.


Of course, there’s little I can add to the 2009 New Yorker article by David Grann, which details not just the fire Willingham was tried, convicted, and executed for setting, but also the shoddy science used to convict him. It turns out, there was one death penalty case Rick Perry did struggle with. He struggled to keep the evidence from seeing the light of day, especially new evidence.

That new evidence came from a forensics expert whose work on a fire nearly identical to the fire Perry was tried, convicted and executed for setting,

In 1987, Ernest Ray Willis was convicted and sentenced to death for setting a house fire the killed two women. Not only was he convicted and sentenced to die for a crime nearly identical to Willis, but they were in prison together — on the same death row.

Willis was referred to as a “satanic demon,” during his trial. Prosecutors in Willingham’s case made much of skull imagery and an Iron Maiden poster found in the Willingham household. On the stand, Willingham’s wife was questioned about a tattoo of a skull and serpent on her husband’s left arm. A psychologist called upon to interpret this “evidence” suggested Willingham was involved in “cultic-type of activities” and had “an interest in satanic-type activities.” (The same kind of “evidence” led to the wrongful convictions of the now-released West Memphis Three.)

Willis was given powerful antipsychotic drugs in jail, which rendered him impassive at trial, which was exploited by the prosecutor to described Willis as a killer without conscience. Willingham was labeled an “extremely severe sociopath” by a forensic psychiatrist known as “Dr. Death” for his record of testifying for the prosecution in death penalty cases. The doctor was later expelled by the American Psychiatric Association for arriving at “psychiatric diagnosis without first having examined the individuals in question, and for indicating, while testifying in court as an expert witness, that he could predict with 100-per-cent certainty that the individuals would engage in future violent acts.”

Willis had inadequate counsel — a lawyer who was trying his first death penalty case, and who had only spend three hours with Willis before the trial. Willingham’s lawyers were convinced that he was guilty of the crime, and only presented one witness in his defense.

Willis, however, came within two days of being executed only to walk free after 17 years. Ordered to retry Willis or set him free, the state of Texas set him free.

Willis was released in part because of his lawyers made a convincing case that he had not received a fair trial or that the process that led to his conviction and sentencing was flaws.

He was also released because fire expert Dr. Gerald made the same analysis of the evidence in his case that he made after reviewing the evidence in Willingham’s case: that much of the evidence investigators had taken as evidence of arson had in fact been caused by flashover fire.


A flashover is the near simultaneous ignition of all combustible material in an enclosed area. When certain materials are heated they undergo thermal decomposition and release flammable gases. Flashover occurs when the majority of surfaces in a space are heated to the autoignition temperature of the flammable gases (see also flash point). Flashover normally occurs at 500 °C (930 °F) or 1,100 °F for ordinary combustibles, and an incident heat flux at floor level of 1.8 Btu/ft²*s (20 kW/m²).

An example of flashover is when a piece of furniture is ignited in a domestic room. The fire involving the initial piece of furniture can produce a layer of hot smoke which spreads across the ceiling in the room. The hot buoyant smoke layer grows in depth, as it is bounded by the walls of the room. The radiated heat from this layer heats the surfaces of the combustible materials in the room, causing them to give off flammable gases via pyrolysis. When the surface temperatures become high enough, these gases ignite.

The same evidence might have saved Cameron Todd Willingham from execution, but it never saw the light of day in his case. That was due, in large part, to the efforts of governor Rick Perry.

But what is likely to draw the most attention as Perry campaigns is the case of Willingham, who was convicted in 1991 of setting fire to his home and killing his three young daughters. Shortly before his 2004 execution, defense attorneys gave Perry and the pardon board a report from an arson expert saying the forensic evidence used to convict Willingham was severely flawed.

Perry went ahead with the execution, and has refused to release information from his advisers about the evidence.

The state forensic science commission began to review the case and the state’s arson unit after investigative journalists cast increasing doubt on Willingham’s guilt. But just before the commission was to hear from an investigator it had hired, Perry dismissed the chairman and replaced three members of the commission.

Perry’s newly installed chairman, a prosecutor who had called Willingham a “guilty monster,” delayed the commission’s hearings and asked the attorney general for an opinion about whether the commission could actively investigate the Willingham case. Attorney General Greg Abbott (R) said last month that it could not.

If the ghost of Cameron Todd Williams doesn’t haunt Rick Perry, it should. That it doesn’t is a chilling statement about the kind of man Rick Perry is, as well as a movement made up of the kind of people who can cheer the death of another person — even the death of an innocent man.

Maybe the only reason Perry can have such faith in the infallibility of Texas’ justice system is because he has gone to great lengths to keep evidence of its flaws out of public view. Or maybe he’s not troubled because he understands one rather stunning truth about capital punishment in this country. Once you’re sentenced to death row, the system doesn’t care whether your really innocent or not.

In fact, innocence is beside the point.


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