One of the best ways to determine someone's true political philosophy is to observe the people who support him/her. Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison is planning to run against Governor Rick Perry in the Texas Republican Primary next March, putting the state GOP in a tough spot. They are being forced to take sides against two leaders of the party, each of whom claims to be the more conservative.
As I outlined in a previous column, Hutchison is pro-choice (not a conservative position), while Perry is pro-life (a strong conservative position). Hence, although the Senator claims to be a staunch Republican, on this issue she is more aligned with the Democratic Party.
Now let's examine another conservative position, capital punishment. Hutchison, claiming to be a supporter of the death penalty, is criticizing Perry for what she calls obstruction of an investigation into the execution of a child murderer in 2004. In 1991, Todd Willingham, from Corsicana, Texas, was charged with starting a fire in his home that killed his three daughters. The following year he was convicted and sentenced to die by lethal injection.
Willingham took advantage of the almost unending system of appeals until 2003, when the Supreme Court declined to hear the case. Justice was finally served the following year, 13 years after the multiple murders. The case has suddenly gained national attention because of a story in the New Yorker magazine a couple of months ago that, according to death penalty opponents, "raises the possibility that the state may have executed an innocent man."
Keep in mind, death penalty foes are always seeking to find a case where one innocent person was executed. Nevertheless, in 2006, Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, voting with a majority to uphold the death penalty in a Kansas case, declared that, in the modern judicial system, there has not been "a single case, not one, in which it is clear that a person was executed for a crime he did not commit. If such an event had occurred in recent years, we would not have to hunt for it; the innocent's name would be shouted from the rooftops."
But the Willingham controversy is not a hunt for evidence of wrongdoing; it's a tactic to make the governor appear to be cruel and callous in his refusal to grant clemency to a murderer. There's an old axiom used by litigators: "When the law's on your side, argue the law. When the facts are on your side, argue the facts. When neither is on your side, pound the table." This amounts to pounding the table.
According to Willingham, he was at home with his three daughters when he was awakened by a scream from one of them. The house was on fire, but he was unable to locate the children, so he fled the house. The three young girls died of smoke inhalation. Subsequently, arson investigators testified that they had a clear vision of what had happened. Someone had poured liquid accelerant throughout the children's room, even under their beds, then, poured some more along the adjoining hallway and out the front door, creating a "fire barrier" that prevented anyone from escaping. Similarly, it was disclosed that the refrigerator in the kitchen had been moved to block the backdoor exit. The house, in short, had been deliberately transformed into a death trap. Todd Willingham, the only person, besides the victims, known to have been in the house at the time of the blaze, became the prime suspect. The evidence was so overwhelming that it took the jury less than an hour to render a guilty verdict.
The brouhaha that has emerged now is the result of an opinion by the Texas Forensic Science Commission, which examined the case last year and said they had doubts about the original findings of the arson detectives. Moreover, Perry is being accused of delaying the Commission's progress because he removed four members. Of course, the fact that commission members are routinely rotated off the board each year doesn't seem to matter when one wants to conjure up a conspiracy.
It's truly fascinating that all this interest in an 18-year-old murder case has been resurrected at the same time that a heated political battle is brewing. Governor Perry has remained convinced that Willingham was guilty, calling him a "monster." Yet, those who believe that the death penalty should be abolished are out for Perry's scalp.
Meanwhile, Hutchison says that Perry's actions have "given liberals an argument to discredit the death penalty." Well, if Hutchison thinks that 13 years of appeals, which included the highest court in the land, none of which were deemed worthy of a retrial, isn't enough reason to carry out the sentence, then it is she who is discrediting the death penalty. Perhaps it's time for her to admit that, like the abortion issue, she also agrees with liberals on capital punishment.
Bob Weir is a former detective sergeant in the New York City Police Department. He is the executive editor of The News Connection in Highland Village, Texas. Email Bob.