Texas Governor Rick Perry overhauled the Texas Forensic Science Commission in 2005 as it was on the verge of concluding that Cameron Todd Willingham's conviction was based on bad science.
Adamand I both wrote on Thursday about Texas Governor Rick Perry's decision to go forward with the 2004 execution of Cameron Todd Willingham (in the face of evidence that called into question his guilt) and then kneecap the newly created state commission that seemed to be on the verge of blowing the lid off the whole thing. From a purely political standpoint, it speaks to Perry's judgment and diligence, as well as his respect for scientific process; in this case, the arson science that had been used to convict Willingham for murdering his three kids had been refuted by the time his execution date rolled around.
But the Willingham decision didn't just impact Cameron Todd Willingham; it actually set a precedent that will have a far-reaching effect. That's because, in the process of overhauling the Texas Forensic Science Commission just as it was set to produce a report extremely damaging to his administration, he appointed a new chair: John Bradley, a district attorney whose record was so controversial he was later removed from the TFSC post by the Republican state senate. As the Texas Observer's Dave Mann explains, Bradley took the odd step—likely as a way of wasting time—of asking the state's Republican attorney general to officially weigh in on whether the commission even had jurisdiction to evaluate cases that were decided before the commission was formed.
Given the circumstances by which it was conceived—given the stated goals of the legislators who drafted the law that created the commission—you might say that the entire point of the commission was to investigate cases that had already happened. But instead, the AG's office, taking advantage of a loosely worded mission statement, ruled that the commission could only offer non-binding recommendations, and only on cases that came after 2005. Here's Mann:
This afternoon, the commission considered new cases that involved flawed forensic evidence. It quickly became apparent how constricted the commission is following the recent opinion from the Texas attorney general's office.
The commission rejected a half-dozen complaints, including three allegedly flawed arson cases, because they weren't within its jurisdiction—at least as recently interpreted by the AG. The AG this summer ruled that the commission doesn't have authority to investigate cases before 2005.
The three arson cases all occurred before then. So even though the cases apparently contained serious problems—and would otherwise have been investigated—the commission was forced to dismiss them because of "jurisdictional issues," as Chair Nizam Peerwani put it.
This matters because, as he notes, there are a handful of arson cases, pre-2005, that were almost certainly based on bad science. Arson science changed dramatically over the last two decades; the process used to lock people up in the late 1990s is the forensic equivalent of alchemy.
Update: Yup, the TFSC met on Friday and affirmed that Abbot's ruling prevents them from investigating pre-2005 cases. But via the Statesman, it's not all bad:
The state fire marshal's office has agreed to review prior arson investigations to determine if criminal convictions were obtained using bad science or now-debunked assumptions, it was announced Friday.
The review was a key concession sought by the Texas Forensic Science Commission as part of its investigation into the science used to convict, and ultimately execute, Cameron Todd Willingham for the 1991 fire that killed his three young daughters...
Uncomfortable that a poor understanding of fire science could have influenced other investigations, the commission's Willingham report also urged Fire Marshal Paul Maldonado to review his agency's files.
Maldonado agreed to the review earlier this week, Forensic Science Commission Chairman Nizam Peerwani announced Friday.
The U.S Sentencing Commission has released a new report detailing trends in federal sentencing over the past five years. There's a good deal to sort through, but one big takeaway is that for the first time ever, the majority of federal felony convictions involved Hispanics—even though they make up just 16 percent of the total population. Here's a chart showing the figures:
Data from U.S. Sentencing Commission. Chart by Tim Murphy
There's a pretty clear explanation for this. As the Associated Press notes:
The commission's statistics also reveal that sentences for felony immigration crimes — which include illegal crossing and other crimes such as alien smuggling — were responsible for most of the increase in the number of Hispanics sent to prison over the last decade.
On the other hand, we've seen a boom in the private corrections industry in response to the spike in immigration-related offenses. So don't expect anyone to actually do anything about this.
The USDA had a new report up on Wednesday breaking down the percentage of residents in each state who lack secure sources of food—which is to say, the number of people for whom going hungry is an everyday concern. Here's the thrust of it:
An estimated 85.5 percent of American households were food secure throughout the entire year in 2010, meaning that they had access at all times to enough food for an active, healthy life for all household members. The remaining households (14.5 percent) were food insecure at least some time during the year, including 5.4 percent with very low food security—meaning that the food intake of one or more household members was reduced and their eating patterns were disrupted at times during the year because the household lacked money and other resources for food.
That's not good, and the bad news is that the general trend is in the wrong direction. Only a handful of places (DC, New Mexico) have seen their food security numbers improve over the last decade. The Great Recession contributes to this, but the trend is clear without it, too. It also brings with it some long-term issues; food insecurity makes it harder to plan nutritionally sound meals, which in turn opens the door to a range of potential health consequences.
When NBC's Brian Williams asked Texas Governor Rick Perry on Wednesday night about his state's record on the death penalty—234 executions and counting—the crowd at the Ronald Reagan Library in Simi Valley, California broke into spontaneous applause. It was an instantly memorable moment in a debate with few of them:
By this point, it shouldn't come as too much of a surprise that conservatives, particularly those who wait in long lines to attend Republican primary debates at the Reagan library 14 months before the election, are big fans of the death penalty. Perry's 234 executions are a modern-day record for a governor, breaking the one held by his predecessor—George W. Bush. But on a night where Williams and his co-moderator, Politico's John Harris, were for the most part on their game, it was something of a missed opportunity to get the Texas Governor on the record about a story he's been reluctant to talk about: The execution of a man who was probably innocent, based on evidence that was proven to be false.
Williams asked Perry, "Have you struggled to sleep at night with the idea that any one of those might have been innocent?" Perry was unequivocal: "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, you kill one of our children, you kill a police officer, you're involved with another crime and you kill one of our citizens, you will face the ultimate justice in the state of Texas and that is you will be executed."
Williams followed up by asking Perry what he thought about the fact that his recitation of the death penalty statistic was an applause line.
"I think Americans understand justice. I think Americans are clearly, in the vast majority of cases, supportive of capital punishment. When you have committed heinous crimes against our citizens—and it's a state-by-state issue, but in the state of Texas, our citizens have made that decision, and they made it clear, and they don’t want you to commit those crimes against our citizens. And if you do, you will face the ultimate justice."
Perry knows his base, and he played to them perfectly with his answer. But there's no need for hypotheticals here.
Perry has been repeatedly presented with evidence that should have challenged these sweeping assertions—and he's repeatedly brushed them aside. When, in 2004, new advances in arson science seemed to prove that death row inmate Cameron Todd Willingham had not, in fact, murdered his three children via arson, Perry denied a stay of execution. And when the Texas Forensic Science Commission, after taking the unprecedented step of reexamining the case, seemed on the verge of posthumously exonerating Willingham, Perry took the also unprecedented step of replacing three members of the commission. Just like that. Last year, meanwhile, when Texas Monthly helped spring an innocent man, Anthony Graves, from death, Perry pointed to the case as proof that the system works. Which is true—if your definition of a functioning criminal justice system is one in which courts wrongly sentence an innocent man to death, only for an intrepid journalist to swoop in and, after countless hours of work, help secure his release.
On Saturday, not-yet-a-presidential-candidate Sarah Palin previewed an enticing line of attack against Texas Governor Rick Perry: "crony capitalism." Although she didn't mention the latest Republican frontrunner by name, Palin warned Iowa tea partiers that when candidates accept million-dollar donations, you should expect a few strings to be attached. On that front, the numbers seemingly speak for themselves. A full 20 percent of Rick Perry's $100 million fundraising tally as governor has come from Perry appointees, and on everything from toll roads to nuclear waste dumps to private prisons to lawsuit reform, Perry's policies have dovetailed neatly with the interests of his biggest donors.
Yet when NBC's Brian Williams gave Perry's rivals for the GOP nomination a chance to nail the governor at Wednesday night's debate, they all took a pass. The question was about Perry's controversial 2007 decision to mandate the HPV vaccine to innoculate adolescent girls against cervical cancer. Williams wanted to know if Perry made the right call. Reps. Michele Bachmann and Ron Paul both seized on the idea that the executive order was a decidedly Big Government move. Mitt Romney noted that, as Perry himself has said, it was a well-intentioned mistake that Perry would handle differently if he had a do-over.
What went unsaid by his rivals, though, was the full context: Perry's decision came at the end of a massive lobbying effort by the pharmaceutical giant Merck—an effort helmed in Austin by Perry's former chief of staff and longtime friend, Mike Toomey. (Toomey currently chairs a pro-Perry Super PAC with the stated goal of raising $55 million during the primary race to finance a shadow campaign for Perry.) On the day he signed the executive order, Perry received a $5,000 donation from Merck's political action committee, which came on the heels of a $6,000 donation during his reelection campaign. Even his supporters would agree that the HPV decision was an uncharacteristic one for the conservative governor; questions about Perry's motivations are natural.
Why did his opponents take a pass? It could just be that in 2012, GOP candidates—Palin excepted—know better than to bite the big business hand that feeds many of them.