The Time Trump’s Energy Secretary Nominee Let an Innocent Man Die on Death Row


Editor’s note: This story was originally published on my personal blog in August 2014, when I was a reporter at the Ames Tribune assigned to cover the Story County GOP’s annual Judge Joseph Story Dinner. Today, Rick Perry’s confirmation hearing to lead the Department of Energy in Donald Trump’s administration is currently underway.

I’m not sure if another reporter’s asked Rick Perry about this yet, but during his not-considering-running-for-president-again-wink-nod campaign stop near Ames Monday I probed the Texas governor on the latest developments casting doubt over Cameron Todd Willingham’s guilt that were reported last week by the Marshall Project. Perry’s response, as expected, was the denial of any wrongdoing by the Texas justice system and its “open and … thoughtful process.”

For the uninitiated: Cameron Todd Willingham was a man executed on Texas’ death row in 2004 for allegedly setting fire to his home, killing his three children — but as many reporters have shown, none better than the New Yorker‘s brilliant David Grann in “Trial by Fire,” he was almost certainly innocent.

Grann’s story focused largely on the incompetent arson investigation that led to Willingham’s conviction. But John Jackson, the prosecutor in the case, has argued that even if that investigation was flawed, the testimony of a jailhouse snitch still proved Willingham’s guilt. Not quite: despite Jackson’s denials, documents obtained by the Marshall Project (based on evidence reported earlier this year) revealed that he offered to reduce the informer’s sentence for armed robbery and funnel him thousands of dollars if he kept in line.

Perry’s response to my question about Jackson’s misconduct, which, had it been revealed while Willingham was still alive, could have been grounds for a new trial: “I really don’t have any quotes about any response to someone who thinks they may have found something. We have a very open and, I think, a thoughtful process.”

During Perry’s ill-fated bid for president in 2012, journalists referred to Willingham’s execution as the governor’s “ghost.” Although Perry had been told about the flawed arson investigation, he refused to grant Willingham a temporary stay before his execution.

In 2005, the Texas Forensic Science Commission was established. As the commission was reaching a conclusion about the legitimacy of the arson evidence, Perry ignored pleas to reappoint its chairman and was subsequently accused of attempting trip up its investigation. The governor replaced two other members of the commission as well, but it still eventually concluded that the arson evidence was unreliable.

This March, the Texas Board of Pardons and Parole, whose members were all Perry appointees, denied Willingham a posthumous full pardon.

In response to the accusations of wrongdoing against him, Perry told me Monday, “I get accused of a lot of things, but none of them hold any water.”

After the Marshall Project‘s report came out last week, the ghost of Willingham was again invoked, this time by a Los Angeles Times op-ed columnist.

I asked Perry about that, too.

“I don’t consider it to be a ghost. I consider it to be the state of Texas appropriately and rightly gave every effort that it should have through the appeals process.”

Gavin Aronsen
Gavin Aronsen is an editor and reporter for and founding member of the Iowa Informer. He previously worked as a city reporter for the Ames Tribune, research assistant to investigative journalist Wayne Barrett at the Village Voice, and in various roles at Mother Jones, where his work contributed to a National Magazine Award nomination for the magazine's digital media coverage of the Occupy Wall Street movement. Email: garonsen [at] iowainformer [dot] com.