Arson case follows Perry to Houston

October 19, 2009 5:13:14 PM PDT
A 17-year-old arson case is seemingly following Governor Rick Perry just about everywhere he goes these days. An expert hired by a state commission says the fire wasn't arson, but a man was executed for setting it. On Monday in Houston, Gov. Perry said the case is an example of how the system works well and that it was thoroughly reviewed.

A jury convicted Todd Willingham and appeals courts looked at it, even the Supreme Court. But a new investigator hired by the state now says original investigators got it wrong. There was no arson, therefore no arsonist, and five years ago it was a wrongful execution.

Willingham was likely not the kind of man you want your daughter to marry. He was an abuser, even hitting his then-wife when she was pregnant with one of their children. But was he a killer?

"This is a monster of a man," said Gov. Perry.

Willingham was convicted of purposefully setting a fire in his Corsicana home in 1991. On Monday, a state-hired expert said the fire wasn't arson, meaning the State of Texas may have sent an innocent man to the death chamber.

After weeks of criticism, Gov. Perry isn't backing down.

"I understand the anti-death penalty people out there trying to find some sliver, but this is the wrong case and I happen to think the wrong person that they want to use as their poster child," he said.

In 1991, investigators said the fire burned as if someone poured fuel on the floor and under the beds where Willingham's children were sleeping. But the state-hired expert disputed that, saying the fire could not have been purposefully set. He said the initial science was bad.

State Senator Rodney Ellis helped set up the commission that reviewed the fire.

"At some point, we're going to make a mistake and this might be that case," said Sen. Ellis.

As the commission was set to meet earlier this month, Gov. Perry replaced two of its members. The new members postponed any public hearing. It hasn't been rescheduled and Gov. Perry hopes the commission will do more work.

"I hope that this next commission will be a little more in-depth and in-detail in looking at all the information and not pick and choose so-called experts," said Gov. Perry.

This is becoming a huge political issue just four months from the governor's primary. Gov. Perry's opponent, U.S. Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison, says while she supports the death penalty, Gov. Perry has politicized its review process, making all of this look like a cover-up.

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