An Innocent Man Was Probably Executed on Gov. Rick Perry’s Watch…Not That Anyone Cares

Is it possible that the G.O.P would nominate and/or the American people would elect for president a man who as governor more likely than not executed an innocent man?

An even more disturbing question would be: Could Gov. Rick Perry be elected president despite his efforts to keep investigators from learning the truth about the Cameron Todd Willingham case both before and after Willingham’s execution?

It seems we will have an answer to these questions in the 2012 campaign.

Apparently, these questions were not of much concern among Texans. According to a recent Politico article written by Alexander Burns and Maggie Haberman, Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison who ran against Perry in the gubernatorial primary in the 2010 campaign asked focus groups what they thought about the idea that an innocent man may have been executed on Gov. Perry’s watch. For the most part, the question was a non-issue. According to several (unnamed) former Hutchison staffers, they quoted one individual as saying “It takes balls to execute an innocent man.”

Of course Gov. Perry continues to insist that Willingham was guilty of setting the fire that killed his three girls even though nine independent leading fire experts who have since reviewed the case all say the prosecution’s expert relied on science that has since been discredited.

Gov. RICK PERRY (R), Texas: This is a guy on his- on- in the death chamber, his last breath, he spews an obscenity-laced triad [sic] against his wife. That’s the person who we’re talking about here. And getting all tied up in the process here is, frankly, a deflection of what people across this state and this country need to be looking at. This was a bad man.

These are Willingham’s last words Gov. Perry was referring to:

No question, the words that Willingham directed at his wife are pretty rough. Willingham could have taken the high road but he didn’t. A bad man? Maybe. But to suggest that because Willingham’s last statement, which I agree is obscene and arguably low class, somehow “proves” that he killed his own children tells me that the Texas governor has a very low standard of proof.

Willingham’s spouse believed in his innocence in the beginning but as the execution date drew nearer, she changed her mind and made statements in the media that she believed he was guilty. How many men, innocent or not, in a similar situation would feel betrayed say something similar?

At Gov. Perry’s first debate appearance at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library, when challenged about his executive order that would have required girls age 12 and over to get the HPV vaccine, he said that the way he went about it was wrong but explained that he was concerned about these young girls getting a deadly cancer. He “errs on the side of life,” a statement I couldn’t believe he could actually say with a straight face given his unwillingness to err on the side of life with regard to capital punishment.

Toward the end of the debate, Brian Williams asks Gov. Perry the following:

Governor Perry, a question about Texas. Your state has executed 234 death row inmates, more than any other governor in modern times. [Applause] Have you struggled to sleep at night with the idea that any one of those might have been innocent?

Gov. Perry responds:

No, sir. I’ve never struggled with that at all. The state of Texas has a very thoughtful, a very clear process in place of which—when someone commits the most heinous of crimes against our citizens, they get a fair hearing, they go through an appellate process, they go up to the Supreme Court of the United States, if that’s required.

Never struggled with the thought that there’s even the slightest possibility that an innocent man has been executed on his watch at all? The fact that five men who were once on death row who were exonerated on his watch doesn’t give Gov. Perry even a little pause? Five men who would have been executed had Gov. Perry had his way? And even after the recent revelation via exculpatory DNA evidence that an innocent man, Claude Jones was executed just before Gov. George W. Bush handed the governorship to Perry and ascended to the presidency?

If Gov. Perry is so certain of the guilt of every single individual who has been executed on his watch, why does he continue to stymie investigations into the Willingham case? Perhaps even more importantly, why does Gov. Perry continue to block efforts to allow Hank Skinner to have DNA testing which would determine once and for all if Skinner is the murderer Gov. Perry thinks he is before executing him this coming November?

What is Gov. Perry so afraid of?

Gov. Perry would have us believe that the “very clear process” in Texas is so perfect that there is just no way that a wrongfully convicted person could be executed. He is either in denial or doesn’t care if the occasional innocent person is killed by the state (and even if Willingham wasn’t a murderer, he was still “a bad man” so who cares right?). The death penalty is just the sort of a punishment that neither Gov. Perry nor the State of Texas can live without. Judging by the thunderous applause at the very mention of Texas’ 234 executions at the Reagan Library, sadly Gov. Perry is hardly alone in a Republican Party where the majority of its members ironically and hypocritically call themselves “pro-life.”

  • Jeff Molby

    The fact that five men who were once on death row who were exonerated on his watch doesn’t give Gov. Perry even a little pause? Five men who would have been executed had Gov. Perry had his way?

    It’s a bit disingenuous to beat him up for the guys that were exonerated. Juries are bound to make mistakes, so the fact that those men were freed on appeal shows that the system is at least somewhat self-correcting.

    The difference between you and Perry is that you don’t believe the system self-corrects well enough and he does. I’m with you, but we should be able to recognize his perspective isn’t completely crazy.

  • Stephen Littau


    On this one point, it wasn’t my intention to beat Gov. Perry up but to point out that the Texas criminal justice system has been wrong at least five times since he has been governor where an individual’s life was held in the balance. In fairness to Gov. Perry, I haven’t studied each of the five cases and don’t know what role he played or didn’t play. I probably should also point out that he has signed some significant reforms including post conviction DNA testing (which may finally bring the Skinner case the proper resolution) and compensation for the wrongfully convicted (Gov. Perry reversed Anthony Graves injustice and thanks to his actions Graves gets compensation he otherwise wouldn’t). It’s also my understanding that in Texas, the governor’s ability to pardon or commute sentences is limited by the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles.

    But to say the system is “fair” even when faced with these facts?

    As you may recall, Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn came to a very different conclusion from his experiences with his state’s criminal justice system:

    “I have concluded that our system of imposing the death penalty is inherently flawed.” said Quinn in a statement issued after the signing.

    “Since our experience has shown that there is no way to design a perfect death penalty system, free from the numerous flaws that can lead to wrongful convictions or discriminatory treatment, I have concluded that the proper course of action is to abolish it.”

    I think you are right about the difference between Gov. Perry on the one side who thinks the system sufficiently self corrects and us on the other who don’t believe it self-corrects enough.

  • Jeff Molby

    But to say the system is “fair” even when faced with these facts?

    It’s easy… incredibly easy to conclude the system is fair if you start with the assumption that the system sufficiently self-corrects. With that assumption firmly in place, all of the cases you cited are evidence in favor of the system being fair.

    If you want to make any progress towards opening the eyes of a death penalty proponent, you must combat that assumption head-on; you must spend your effort talking about those that are probably innocent yet never get exonerated. No other argument will amount to a hill of shit.

  • Phil

    I would be interested in your expanding on why you believe the death penalty to be unacceptable. If I read the statistics correctly, the human death rate is 100%. We all die. Executing a person shortens their life. It does not take something that they would have forever. It is indeed tragic if an innocent person is put to death. But almost all of the victims of murderers are innocent persons. The huge majority of those who die in automotive crashes are innocent people.

    What would be an appropriate penalty for a person who did, in fact, take the life of an innocent other person?

  • Stephen Littau


    If you want to make any progress towards opening the eyes of a death penalty proponent, you must combat that assumption head-on; you must spend your effort talking about those that are probably innocent yet never get exonerated.

    I thought I did do that using Claude Jones and Cameron Todd Willingham as examples. How many more examples need to be produced?

    What do you do with people like Phil (comment right after yours) who say “we all die” ?

  • Stephen Littau


    What would be an appropriate penalty for a person who did, in fact, take the life of an innocent other person?

    Using your reasoning, why punish murderers at all? After all, we all die. The murderer is only shortening that person’s life. Why delay the inevitable?

    My short answer for why I believe the death penalty is unacceptable is because I believe that if killing is morally wrong for an individual is also morally wrong for the government. If it’s wrong for me to kill it is also wrong for the judicial system to kill even someone who is guilty of the most heinous of crimes.

    But even if I did believe that it was okay for the state to kill, I don’t think the state is competent enough to make certain that only the guilty are executed (or any human system for that matter because humans fail). When people in government make a mistake it’s rare that they will admit to it; more times than not when evidence shows them to be in error they double down instead. Others in government tend to “have their back.”

    That’s the short answer. Read my death penalty archives if you are interested in more detail.

    So, if the death penalty is off the table, what should the state do with someone who murders someone else? I say life in prison is appropriate in most cases.

  • Phil

    Stephen, you’re completely illogical. The murderer’s innocent victim has done nothing to the murderer. That is why one is “innocent” and the other is not. I don’t justify punishing a murderer because what he or she did is morally wrong, it is simply because a society in which one can arbitrarily choose to murder is not workable. I don’t look on any of the criminal laws as being punishment for moral turpitude. The criminal laws should only punish behavior that cannot be tolerated because that behavior results in an unworkable society.
    Using your reasoning there should be no jail time, either. If someone is innocent and jailed, whatever amount of time they were there is an unrecoverable part of their life.
    Sorry, but I just don’t see your point.

  • Aimee


    I don’t get your point. The death penalty is unacceptable because one innocent person wrongfully killed is one too many. The justice system is very unjust and I don’t trust it, both based on my experience with it and on cases I have followed. Also, not once did Stephen say HE didn’t think that there should be no jail time. Quite the opposite.

    Car crashes- While unfortunate, that is called natural selection. What would be fit for someone that did commit murder is life in prison. Why should they get a peaceful way out after a nice meal of their choosing? There has been a flood of men that are being released from prison and death row because they were wrongfully convicted.

    How would you feel if you were a juror that helped someone get the needle only to later find out information was withheld from the jury and that person had been innocent after all? Happens all the time.

    Wouldn’t it be better to be safe than sorry? It’s also cheaper to be safe.

  • Phil

    Aimee, your statement, “The death penalty is unacceptable because one innocent person wrongfully killed is one too many,” is what is called begging the question. Simply making a statement does not prove it to be a truth.

    As to life imprisonment as the proper punishment, I suggest that you and Stephen read George Bernard Shaw’s “The Crime of Imprisonment”. Shaw argues strongly in favor of the death penalty over lifelong imprisonment. I believe it to be a compelling argument. I also believe it to be an argument rather than a simple statement of preference. That does not mean that I agree with it totally.

    I do dispute your “flood” of wrongful convictions and information being withheld from a jury “happening all the time”.

    Are there mistaken convictions? Of course. It is not a perfect world. Bad things happen to good people. None of this is sufficient arguement that the death penalty is unacceptable.

    As to the “practical” argument that it costs more to execute a convicted murderer than to imprison them for life, those are not the only two alternatives. The reason it now costs more to execute is that the appeals process is almost limitless. The other alternative is to strictly limit the appeals process.

    As to helping to assure fewer wrongful convictions I would argue for expanding the defense’ opportunity for DNA testing. I can think of no other help in that area.

    As a juror I would feel quite bad if a murder defendant was found not guilty and on release murdered an innocent person. I would also feel worse if the defendant were found guilty, sentenced to life, and murdered a guard in prison.

    In short, the death penalty is not “wrong”. Convictions are flawed as is everything else in the world. The best solution might be to shorten the appeals process.

  • Lyn

    I watched a program about Mr. Willingham’s case I think it was Frontline. He was interviewed at one point and said that you think you’d do anything to save your kids even run into a burning building, but he said the flames were so intense he physically could not go in his mind could not force his body to go any further.

    I think Mr. Willingham suffered a loss of faith and everything else. It looks like he was innocent. An entire system screwed him especially the initial law enforcement involved and the prosecutor’s office. I don’t judge him for his harsh last words. I admire his defiance.

    The death penalty is more humane than serving a long sentence in most of America’s prisons. That sounds sick but it’s true. The main flaw with the process is in the law enforcement investigation and prosecution phases.

  • Aimee

    From the main page of the Innocence Project. Is this not disturbing to you???

    There have been 273 post-conviction DNA exonerations in United States history. These stories are becoming more familiar as more innocent people gain their freedom through postconviction testing. They are not proof, however, that our system is righting itself.

    The common themes that run through these cases — from global problems like poverty and racial issues to criminal justice issues like eyewitness misidentification, invalid or improper forensic science, overzealous police and prosecutors and inept defense counsel — cannot be ignored and continue to plague our criminal justice system.

    •Seventeen people had been sentenced to death before DNA proved their innocence and led to their release.

    •The average sentence served by DNA exonerees has been 13 years.

    •About 70 percent of those exonerated by DNA testing are members of minority groups.

    •In almost 40 percent of DNA exoneration cases, the actual perpetrator has been identified by DNA testing.

    •Exonerations have been won in 34 states and Washington, D.C.

  • Phil

    Aimee, since we were discussing the death sentence for murder, only a small portion of the information you cite is applicable. I understand that you believe that one innocent person executed is too many. But we deal with reality in an imperfect world and the seventeen sentenced to death and exonerated by DNA are not many in the long history of death sentences.
    What would be applicable at this point would be data showing how many innocent lives were saved as a result of executing convicted murderers. Obviously those data are impossible to know.

  • Stephen Littau


    Thanks for chiming in. I found your comment in our spam filter; I didn’t want you to think that anyone here at TLP was purposely blocking you.

    What is your take on how Gov. Perry handled the Willingham case?