Gov. Rick Perry was briefed for 30 minutes the morning before the execution of Cameron Todd Willingham, according to the governor’s public calendar obtained by KXAN Austin News. Perry and five members of his staffed were briefed six and half hours before Willingham was scheduled to be executed on Feb. 17, 2004.
The execution was over a deadly 1991 fire in Corsicana in which Willingham’s three daughters died. The convicted killer maintained his innocence throughout the trial and the entire time he was on death row.
Forensic scientists have called into question arson evidence used to convict Willingham.
The specifics of that briefing with the governor and his staff have not been released. Perry's office also said earlier this week its comments or analyses of an attorney's attempt to stop the execution based on an arson expert's opinion are not public records and is refusing to release the documents.
The Houston Chronicle reported it tried unsuccessfully to obtain the documents showing whether Perry reviewed, or if his staff discussed a fax of an arson expert's report that was sent to the governor just 88 minutes before Willingham's execution.
If Perry, himself, reviewed the document, it wasn’t added to his public calendar. A review of the calendar shows a reference to an outside schedule before Perry left for the governor’s mansion on Colorado Street at an undisclosed time. That outside schedule was not released by the governor’s office, and it is unclear
The report from the attorney said investigators had "made errors" and relied on discredited techniques. Willingham's attorney also had argued in a letter to Perry before the execution that the condemned man did not set the fatal fire that killed his three small children in 1991.
A newly released affidavit has a relative of the then-wife of Willingham saying the condemned inmate confessed to her that he set the fire that killed their three daughters. The statements from Ronnie Kuykendall are part of two affidavits released by the city of Corsicana in response to media requests.
The Corsicana Daily Sun reports Ronnie Kuykendall said that his sister, Stacy, on Feb. 8, 2004, called her family together to tell them about her last meeting with Willingham. Ronnie Kuykendall's affidavit says his sibling cried as she said Willingham told her he had set the fire because he knew that she was going to leave him.
On. Sept. 30, just days before the panel was set to review the case, Perry shook up the state panel, a move that basically postponed any public review by the commission - appointed by Perry - until most likely after the March primary.
The commission, which oversees professional conduct of forensic laboratories and facilities, was to consider new arson findings that led to the 2004 execution of Willingham.
Perry has said the board changes are routine.
"This commissions time was up," said Perry Wednesday. "It was time for change."
Perry also defended Willingham's execution Wednesday, calling Willingham "a monster."
He said suggestions that Willingham may have been innocent are anti-death penalty propaganda.
Cameron Todd Willingham's convictions were upheld several times before he was put to death, and recent media reports looking into whether Willingham may have been innocent glossed over evidence that showed he murdered his children, Perry told reporters after addressing Texas Association of Realtors members at a luncheon Wednesday.
Willingham was a monster. He was a guy who murdered his three children, who tried to beat his wife into an abortion so that he wouldn't have those kids. Person after person has stood up and testified to facts of this case that quite frankly you all aren't covering," Perry said.
Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, Perry's rival for the Republican nomination for governor in 2010, has said that while she supports the death penalty, she disagrees with Perry's decision to replace the commission members.
She told The Associated Press on Wednesday in Houston that Perry should have allowed the panel's investigation to go forward to ensure that Willingham was in fact guilty.
"I don't have the facts. I'm not taking up for Mr. Willingham because I have no idea. I'm taking up for the process, for the criminal justice system in our state," Hutchison said.
Perry dismissed suggestions he was trying to influence the commission's findings. He said capable new members of the panel will move forward with the investigation.
Meanwhile, Former Chairman of the Texas Forensic Science Commission and Austin attorney Sam Bassett said the commission's findings shouldn't matter about whether Willingham was innocent or guilty.
"That wasn't our role," Bassett said. "Our role was to focus on whether the forensic science in the case was presented in a way that was negligent or in misconduct."