Gov. Rick Perry said Thursday that critics of his actions in an arson case that sent a man to the death chamber are politically motivated.
Cameron Todd Willingham was executed in 2004 for the Dec. 23, 1991, fire that killed his three children in their Corsicana home. Willingham reportedly denied the crime in his final words at execution.
The Texas Forensic Science Commission was to hear testimony this month from an expert who concluded that the original investigation was flawed and the fire was an accident. But Perry disbanded the panel two days before the scheduled meeting.
The commission chairman who was removed and the expert who was to testify have both criticized Perry’s actions. Perry said the expert's work is questionable and he accused the critics of playing politics.
“This is a politically driven agenda by a group of people,” Perry said.
Perry said he removed the members of the Forensic Science Commission because their terms had expired.
“The vast majority of individuals go off of boards and agencies when their terms expire,” Perry said. “Each of those people’s terms had expired.”
Perry, who was visiting Richardson on Thursday to discuss education, was asked about the Willingham case. He allowed the 2004 execution to go forward.
“This was a very heinous crime that was committed by an individual who has been described by his own defense attorney as a monster,” Perry said. “This is a person whose case went before nine federal courts, including the Supreme Court of the United States four times. They looked at all of the evidence and they agreed that this individual was guilty, and I concurred in that decision.”
Perry’s faces U.S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison in March primary election battle. Her campaign has claimed that Perry’s actions give liberals an argument to discredit capital punishment.
“I think, the appearance of things is bad for the governor,” said Matthew Wilson, a political science professor at Southern Methodist University. “The anti-death-penalty movement has been desperate to find a clear example of someone who was unjustly executed.”
The case has attracted national publicity in publications such at the New York Times and New Yorker magazine. Wilson said national attention could hurt Perry at the polls, but may also help him with Republican voters in March.
“That could create some sense that, ‘Hey, the governor has made us look bad,’ or it could create a defensiveness that actually works to his advantage if people get the impression that outsiders are piling on the governor who is just doing his best job to ensure that justice is done,” Wilson said.
Perry said new appointees to the Forensic Science Commission will hear the Willingham case in the future, but no date has been set.