“It takes balls to execute an innocent man”

Veterans of Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison’s unsuccessful 2010 primary challenge to [Texas Governor Rick] Perry recalled being stunned at the way attacks bounced off the governor in a strongly conservative state gripped by tea party fever.  Multiple former Hutchison advisers recalled asking a focus group about the charge that Perry may have presided over the execution of an innocent man — Cameron Todd Willingham — and got this response from a primary voter: “It takes balls to execute an innocent man.”

via POLITICO.com.

I don’t know what was on the mind of the primary voter.  I guess that the voter did not mean the statement literally.  It was probably humorous bravado, like the bumper stickers in an earlier era saying “Nuke the whales.”  What such things really express is the view that only weaklings care about justice.

Cameron Todd Willingham of Corsicana, Texas, was charged in December, 1991, with setting a fire in which his three young daughters died, and was convicted of murder in 1992.  After many appeals, he was executed by lethal injection in 2004.

But in the interval, tests by forensic scientists discredited the physical evidence of arson, which was the basis of the prosecution’s case.  The prosecution said that the burn patterns on the floor of the house indicated the use of an “accelerant” to spread the fire.

But fire scientists later proved this evidence was meaningless.  They set a fire in a vacant house in the way Willingham claimed the fire broke out in his house, and the fire spread and left the same kinds of burn patterns as in the Willingham house.  Governor Perry refused to grant a stay of execution based on this evidence.   The Texas Forensic Science Commission later determined that the prosecution’s physical evidence had no basis.

Other evidence included testimony (later recanted) of a jailhouse informant that Willingham had confessed to the crime, and the facts that Willingham had a criminal record, had abused his wife (but not his children) and was a heavy-metal rock fan, which the prosecutor saw as an indication he may have been a Satanist.

Cameron Todd Willingham was not a nice person.  But you shouldn’t put people to death for lack of niceness.

Click on Cameron Todd Willingham, Texas and the death penalty to read David Grann’s 2009 article in The New Yorker.

Here is some more reporting on the case.

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