A Call for Transparency in the Willingham Case
By Peter McGraw, 2010 summer intern There is one issue in the death penalty debate that I hope both sides can agree on: innocent people should not be put to death. Tragically, as we wrote about last year, it appears Texas may have done just that when it executed Cameron Todd Willingham in 2004. Now, a stalled forensics investigation stands in the way of finally bringing Mr. Willingham’s possible wrongful conviction and execution to light (as well as shedding light on the use of junk science in capital trials). After months sitting on the case and rumor that the investigation will be carried out behind closed doors, the panel charged with investigating the Willingham fire and the rest of the forensic science commission are finally scheduled to meet again on July 23rd in Houston. You can help stop further injustice in Mr. Willingham’s case by demanding that the panel conduct a public, swift, and transparent investigation - please email (email@example.com), call (888-296-4232), or submit public comments on TFSC’s website. Without public pressure, the commission will likely continue its past inaction. The last commission meeting, on April 23rd, was the first time that Mr. Willingham’s case was discussed under new Chairman John Bradley. Unfortunately, he and the rest of the commission decided they could only devote 15 minutes of the 6-hour meeting to the likely conviction and execution of an innocent man. However, they were able to set aside an astonishing 90 minutes to discuss the role of private laboratories in developing evidence for criminal cases, a topic entirely outside of the purview of the commission according to Steven Saloom of the Innocence Project. After the meeting, Bradley refused to provide a timeline for the investigation into Mr. Willingham’s case: “However long it takes, that’s however long it takes.” That is a terrifying answer to hear in the state that leads the nation in executions. Bradley’s conduct since being appointed last October has been less than forthright. He failed to show at a recent House Public Safety Committee hearing, dodging criticism of TFSC’s lack of procedural guidelines and public records policies. There are also reports that Bradley asked other members of the panel leading the Willingham investigation to destroy all emails relating to the investigation. Even Dr. Sarah Kerrigan, current member of the Willingham panel, thought this request was outside Bradley’s authority. Support for the death penalty has declined since the mid-90’s, due in large part to an astounding 138 exonerations of people on death row. The panel’s investigation could lead us towards number 139, albeit too late to help Mr. Willingham. If the hearings are made private then we risk adding further injustice to Mr. Willingham’s case as well as to those already on Texas’ death row, as the state may be refusing to confront possible mistakes in ordering executions. Furthermore, we risk silencing a necessary public debate about capital punishment. Don’t let politics triumph over bringing justice to Mr. Willingham’s case. Contact the commission early and often about its next hearing and demand an open investigation of Mr. Willingham’s case!