Now that I am a Texan, at least on paper, I have been watching the case of Cameron Todd Willingham closely. Death penalty opponents have been waiting for a case like this for years. Willingham was convicted of murdering his three children by arson; he was executed in 2004. Now, it appears, he was innocent (in a very well-written piece in the NY), according to independent follow-up investigations that revealed the evidence of arson was poorly interpreted and that his children were victims of a electrical fire.
The governor of Texas, Rick Perry, has suddenly removed and replaced three members of the state Forsenic Science Commission, which has been reviewing the case. That Perry was the governor who signed Willingham’s death warrant, and remains flatly convinced that he was right to do so, is probably not unrelated to the timing.
When we speak of justice, it is useful to keep in mind that no justice exists if people can be convicted of crimes without evidence. If evidence becomes optional, or hazy, or trivial, then it effectively ceases to be a requirement, and trials, too, cease to be trials and become sentencing hearings, judgments from on high rather than down here on earth.
When Perry claims to the media that “clear, compelling, overwhelming evidence” exists that he was right, I have to wonder exactly what his standards for evidence are. Let me be clear that I’m not making a political judgment, or even a statement about the death penalty by saying this; I’m merely asking what evidence WOULD the governor take that would convince him that the man was innocent, because I have to consider the possibility, given the current state of the facts, that there is no amount that would convince him.