Is the Cameron Todd Willingham Case Hurting Rick Perry?

Texas Gov. Rick Perry's future increasingly looks imperiled by a subject that I never would have suspected would get him in political trouble: the ...
by | October 14, 2009

Texas Gov. Rick Perry's future increasingly looks imperiled by a subject that I never would have suspected would get him in political trouble: the death penalty.

When I first read The New Yorker's story on Cameron Todd Willingham, the Texas man who was executed for murders that evidence suggests he didn't commit, I found it fascinating and chilling, but didn't see major political consequences for Perry.

That wasn't my thinking simply because most Texans support the death penalty -- no doubt, most Texans don't support executing innocent people. Rather it was because, even if Willingham was innocent, there were a whole series of blunders that led to his execution.

It seemed a stretch that the facts of the case would be clear enough (and high-profile enough) to average voters that they would be convinced Willingham was innocent. What's more, even if, say, the Texas Forensic Science Commission declared officially that Willingham shouldn't have been convicted, it seemed fairly unlikely that Perry himself would be hurt. The jury, the prosecutors, the investigators -- there are lots of people to share the blame all the way up the criminal justice system.

What I didn't anticipate, though, is how aggressive the Texas press has become. The Chicago Tribune was the publication that originally focused on the Willingham case. The piece in The New Yorker is what made it national news. But now that Perry has replaced several members of the Forensic Science Commission -- delaying and perhaps ending the state's Willingham investigation -- the state press is really taking notice.

For example, consider this article from the Dallas Morning News:

AUSTIN - Gov. Rick Perry's refusal to release documents he reviewed in the hours before the Cameron Todd Willingham execution is the latest fight he's waged over records kept in his office.

Many believe he is the most secretive modern-day governor Texas has seen.

Perry has fought to keep his itinerary of upcoming meetings and appearances from public review. No e-mail he has written has been made public because he only uses a personal e-mail account, which he says is not used for state business. His executive staff keeps a schedule that destroys most of the e-mails it generates every seven days.

The smug, everything-has-to-be-counterintuitive political commentator in me says that Perry can wear the negative press as a badge of honor, especially in his Republican primary against Kay Bailey Hutchison. However, what I think is my more sensible side says that whenever a major newspaper runs a news article that talks about you as "the most secretive modern-day governor" that can't be good.

Josh Goodman
Josh Goodman  |  Former Staff Writer
mailbox@governing.com  | 

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