You’ll remember that story from a month or so back about how Texas executed an almost certainly innocent man.
The New Yorker revealed that, during Todd Willingham’s trial for supposedly burning his children to death, the prosecution explained away the puzzling absence of motive by diagnosing sociopathology, partly because a psychologist (a specialist in marriage counseling — but no matter) lectured the court on the Satanic significance of Iron Maiden and Led Zeppelin.
The jailhouse informant whose testimony implicated Willingham later recanted, while a subsequent forensic researcher described the arson investigation on which the case hinged as employing a methodology more “characteristic of mystics or psychics” than scientists.
The best available research suggests that the fatal fire almost certainly began with an electrical fault, just as the defence had always maintained.
Nonetheless, in February 2004, prison guards carried Willingham into the death chamber, strapped him onto a gurney and injected him with sodium thiopental to paralyse him, pancuronium bromide to collapse his lungs, and potassium chloride to stop his heart.
Now, insofar as there are arguments in support of the modern state murdering people to discourage murder, they rest upon the assumption that it’s the correct party who ends up with the poison in his veins. There’s no “closure” (to employ the preferred piece of psychobabble) for victims’ loved ones in watching an innocent man die; there’s no deterrence in executing the guiltless.
You’d think, then, that investigating the fiasco through which Todd Willingham lost his life would be a political priority, even for social conservatives. But you’d be wrong.
In the US system, the state governor signs off on capital sentences. In Texas, Governor Rick Perry has so far presided over more than 200 executions.
Documents from the Willingham case show that, at 4.52pm on the day of the execution, Perry’s office received forensic testimony throwing into doubt the guilty verdict. Yet by 5pm — that is, with less than 10 minutes deliberation, Perry had refused to grant a stay. Willingham died at 6.20pm.
Perry is, in other words, stained up to his elbows in Willingham’s blood. And, not surprisingly, he’s now doing his best to derail any investigation of the affair.
The Obsidan Wings blog reports that an inquiry into Willingham’s execution was to present its findings on October 2. But on September 30, Perry replaced three members of the investigating panel, including the chair, expressly against their witnesses. The new chairman cancelled the hearing — and Perry then removed a fourth member.
Perhaps one should expect such shenanigans out in the Wild West. Perry is, after all, notorious wingnut, who attracted a certain notoriety after encouraging secessionist rhetoric at an Austin “Tea Party” rally.
But why is the national media allowing such an obvious cover-up to pass with so little comment?
Here’s one explanation. Guilty or not, Willingham — tattooed and poor, uneducated and inarticulate — was still a pretty typical representative of the death-row population. Support for capital punishment has long been de rigueur for ambitious politicians, precisely because the Willinghams of the world have so few champions and thus provide a convenient outlet for “tough-on-crime” rhetoric.
Perry is not the only careerist to have clambered to high office upon the bodies of the executed. Willingham’s innocence might be unfortunate but, in and of itself, it’s not going to change anything.