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Rough Justice Under Rick Perry

Two Austin filmmakers examine how the Texas governor and bad science abetted the execution of Cameron Todd Willingham.

| Fri Sep. 30, 2011 6:00 AM EDT

MJ: I was really struck by John Bradley, who is the district attorney appointed by Perry to chair the Forensic Science Commission. What was your interaction with him like?

SM: The first day we met him in Harlingen, Texas, where they held the first Forensic Science Commission meeting after he was appointed, he kicked us out of the meeting room. And he didn’t allow us back in until we were able to simultaneously show that it was a violation of the Texas Open Meetings Act and we had an attorney friend of ours call up the Attorney General's office in Austin and ask if he was going to have to get a court order to allow us back into the room. We realized we were not treated a lot differently than the people on the commission. Bradley kind of ran roughshod over people who were supposed to be his peers. He really made moves to consolidate power, and [stalled] the investigation of Willingham for about 19 months.

We are still both kind of dumbfounded by the whole thing. We've been on this for so long—way before Rick Perry thought about running for president as far as we know—and we've able to see it all unfold in front of us. We laid it out so that people could look at the whole thing and draw their own conclusion, but we can say for sure that a report that would have possibly been controversial was canceled.

MJ: And this is all happening down in Harlingen, Texas, which I don't think anyone outside of South Texas has heard of.

JB: It's about as far south as you can get in the United States. Generally the meetings are held in cities with large airports so that these professionals can fly in in the morning and fly out in the evening. That wasn't the case. That meeting was also held the same day as the Republican primary debate in Dallas, between Gov. Perry and Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, so I think the large portion of the press that would have been covering the case ended up in Dallas, covering the debate. So it seemed to add to John Bradley's ire when he walks into the room and sees Steve and me with two cameras set up and ready to go.

He is hard-nosed and doesn't have any qualms about stepping on people's toes and advocating his positions, and that includes stepping on some legal toes. A lot of eyebrows in Texas have been raised about his stance on the preservation of evidence. I couldn't imagine a better person from a tough-on-crime sort of lock 'em up, keep 'em locked up perspective to have. I couldn't imagine a shakier person to put on a commission that's put in charge of investigating forensic evidence.

MJ: What did the other members of the Forensic Science Commission make of him?

SM: At the first meeting in Harlingen I think they gave Bradley the benefit of the doubt—"We'll see how it goes"—and by the end of it didn't go very well. Bradley tried several strategies to get the Willingham case out of the Forensic Science Commission, and one of the things he tried to say was—and this is what eventually worked—that the commission didn't have the jurisdiction to consider the Willingham case because it happened before the beginning of the Forensic Science Commission in 2005, and that evidence was not handled by the state of Texas. And then eventually this past July the attorney general issued a ruling that basically said that's right.

I couldn’t imagine a better person from a tough-on-crime sort of lock 'em up, keep 'em locked up perspective to have. I couldn't imagine a shakier person to put on a commission that's put in charge of investigating forensic evidence.

MJ: David Martin, who is Willingham's first defense attorney, plays an interesting role in all of this. He actually wrote a letter to Perry asking him not to commute the sentence. What did he say when you first reached out to him?

JB: He seemed to me from the first time I talked to him to be an able attorney, a professional guy. I think now he's doing mostly insurance work. He was really cordial; he rode up on a mule when we got there, which was a little bit of a culture shock coming from Austin. He wanted to conduct the interview under the roof of the open-air barn, and it was August. We weren't sure whether he would rather have it inside but he said, no, this is the place to do it, we have to do it here. My wife, Alice, came, and she actually conducted most of the interview, which was great because she was really able to stick to the case and get straightforward answers. There are obviously points in the interview that you see in the film that the conversation takes a bizarre turn.

MJ: Your wife, Alice, is a prosecutor.

JB: I had her read the transcripts before we went up to Coriscana, and she prepared the questions. I think it was good to have her conducting the interview in a way because, you know, Martin is such a gentleman and sort of your classic cowboy or country attorney that he wasn't going to get angry with Alice. He was a lot more patient with her I would guess than he might have been with Steve or me.

MJ: Martin is adamant that his client did it, and he says it again in the film. What's driving that?

SM: He alludes to it in several places—that attorney-client privilege prevents him from telling people what Willingham told him, which he implies was a confession to the crime. He's really cagey the way he does this. Like, Joe asked him on camera, "Do you have some reason to believe—you seem to believe it pretty fervently; why?" He says, "Well, maybe I could tell you, but maybe attorney-client privilege prevents me from telling you."

One thing that we feel is some empathy for him, for everybody in Corsicana. They didn't ask to go to this house fire in December of 1991. Those guys showed up, and they put the fire out, and they did the investigation. And they probably executed the job on that day the way they understood the job. And then David Martin was appointed to take this job, and he probably did the job the way he thought he should do it. But what is wrong is that Willingham was on death row for 12 years, and in the intervening 12 years the evidence that was used to convict him, at least scientifically, was shown to be invalid.

All this happens while Willingham is sitting there in solitary confinement, 23 hours a day in a little box, one hour outside of it. You get down to the point where finally it gets to Hurst, who says ultimately you can't stand behind this testimony. And then [Willingham] gets executed.

MJ: One recurring theme in the film is the blurring of these two subjects—a debate about science becomes a debate about the death penalty. Is it possible to have one without the other?

JB: Aside from the political motivations that people may have, for their careers, or for appearances and how they've handled things, I think that ideologically it's a lot less nuanced of a conversation when you have pro- and anti- anything, especially pro- and anti-death penalty people wrangling over something—rather than having scientists explaining concepts to people about the way the fires behave.

MJ: Has anything positive come out of this?

JB: The Texas Fire Marshal's office has agreed to work with the commission to review past cases where there are questions, which is phenomenal. At the same time, it doesn't seem that they will proceed much further with the Willingham investigation because, in light of the attorney general's opinion, the individual commissioners could subject themselves to a lawsuit if they were to exceed their jurisdiction.

MJ: And Bradley ended up being denied by the Texas Senate from serving another term. Did your views change at all?

JB: A documentary lets you try to get behind the eyes of people and try to think about where they're coming from. We wanted to try to explore that mystery, and we weren't interested in making an advocacy piece or a political film. We came at the film enamored with the enigma: We were fascinated by the fact that scientists were unanimous in declaring that there was no evidence of arson, and yet people that were close to the case were very convinced that Willingham was guilty.

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