The Beat Goes On

     Bobby Wayne Woods’ attorney had a simple request. She wanted to enter the prison where Woods was serving time on a capital murder conviction, and awaiting an execution scheduled for Dec. 3, 2009, and film him to show the state board of pardons that Woods’ “extremely limited functioning” made him possibly worthy of mercy.
     She didn’t think her words could “convey the extent of Woods’ disability” and wanted to give the board visual proof of his impairment.
     Given that Woods’ life hangs in the balance his attorney Maurie Levin’s request seemed perfectly reasonable.
     But this is Texas we’re talking about, a place where lethal injections are carried out on a never-ending conveyor belt of swift justice, and of the more than 200 executions sanctioned under his nearly 10-year reign Gov. Rick Perry has granted clemency to spare a condemned person’s life only once.
     In fact Perry, whose office makes the final decision on whether to grant requests for clemency, once went against the state Board of Pardons and Paroles’ opinion to stay the execution of a paranoid schizophrenic man who ranted at trial about devices planted inside him, and as his execution approached didn’t recognize his own lawyers.
     “The board wanted to spare his life,” the Houston Chronicle reports. “Perry sent him to his death.”
     Perry’s sense of justice appears to come straight from the annals of the Wild West, and the sort of sinister town where once the public’s opinion swung behind an accused person’s guilt, and the bars slammed behind them in the county jail, there was no way in hell they were getting out of it, and come Sunday their feet would be dangling.
     In 2004 Perry’s office received a fax 88 minutes before Cameron Willingham’s scheduled execution, according to the Houston Chronicle. The fax was a report from Dr. Gerald Hurst, a respected fire science investigator that questioned the methods state investigators had used to convict Willingham of starting his Corsicana, Texas home on fire and killing his three young girls.
     Despite this report casting doubt on Willingham’s guilt Perry didn’t step in and he was executed. It’s unclear from the records whether Perry even read the report that day, the Chronicle says.
     “Perry’s office has declined to release any of his or his staff’s comment or analysis of the reprieve request,” the Chronicle reports.
     “Summaries of gubernational reviews of execution cases previously were released as public records, most recently under former Gov. George W. Bush.
     “Yet Perry’s office has taken the position that any documents showing his own review and staff discussion of the Willingham case are not public-a claim the Chronicle disputes,” the Chronicle says.
     In response to several wrongful convictions of innocent Texans with what proved to be flawed evidence, in 2005 the state legislature mandated the creation of the Texas Forensic Science Commission to examine the work of crime scene investigators and the quality of forensic science practiced here, according to the Chronicle.
     Willingham’s case was one of the first the commission took on.
     Noted fire scientist Craig Beyler was hired to review Willingham’s case, and in his “scathing” 51-page report he concluded that investigators had no scientific basis for claiming the fire was arson.
     The commission isn’t set up to determine Willingham’s guilt or innocence, only to examine the science used to convict him. But two days before it was set to hear Beyler’s testimony in a public hearing Gov. Perry removed three members of the commission, including its leader, Austin lawyer Sam Bassett, and replaced him with Williamson County DA John Bradley, who cancelled the hearing indefinitely to “familiarize” himself with the facts. Though as Bassett points out, the law that created the commission called for timely investigations.
     Since taking over Williamson has stated he wants to establish standards for the commission that could take several years to develop before it is ready to make any rulings, and he has urged the public to be patient.
     While Williamson pledged to continue the probe of the Willingham case it’s clear his timetable will push it beyond Gov. Perry’s March primary for his 2010 reelection bid.
     “Thus the governor would avoid a potentially embarrassing campaign issue-greenlighting the execution of an innocent man,” the Chronicle reports.
     Perry’s political maneuvering and Williamson’s willingness to either unconsciously or blatantly do his bidding will delay the work of a committee that could potentially improve the quality of forensic science used in criminal proceedings, and save the lives of the wrongfully condemned.
     But with the big, bad sheriff Perry in town the Texas Death Machine hasn’t missed a beat with four people executed in November, and Woods’ execution scheduled for Dec. 3rd.
     As for Maurie Levin’s request to videotape Woods before he is executed the attorney for the Texas Department of Criminal Justice denied the request calling it “unprecedented.”
     Remember this is Texas we’re talking about, a place where the governor acts out his role in the character of a vigilante sheriff, and once an accused gets on the wrong side of the law and is found guilty of murder, there’s no way in hell they’re getting out of it, reasonable doubts be damned.

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