Friday, October 02, 2009

One Man, One Riot

We'll see how long this lasts:

In a first for Texas, a judge ruled Thursday that two men married in another state can divorce here and that the state's ban on gay marriage violates the U.S. Constitution.

Both a voter-approved state constitutional amendment and the Texas Family Code prohibit same-sex marriages or civil unions.

Although the case is far from settled, and the state's constitutional ban on gay marriage is a long way from being thrown out, Dallas state District Judge Tena Callahan's ruling says the state prohibition of same-sex marriage violates the federal constitutional right to equal protection.
It's certainly going to earn Judge Callahan the coveted "Willie Wayne Justice Award." (Judge Justice, a Federal Judge, always referred to as "Willie Wayne" by his detractors, was the judge who forced the integration of schools in Texas. He lived in my hometown of Tyler, and was, shall we say, less than popular in the '70's when he finally brought "Brown v. Board of Education" to my hometown (14 years after it was handed down by the Warren Court). He was also instrumental in changing the way Texas runs its prison system. Full disclosure: while I've never met Judge Justice, I did own a chair he once owned. It was a damned nice little chair, too.)

We in Texas will just have to wait to see what kind of flap this ruling creates. Unlike the other news from Texas, which will probably disturb almost no one inside the state:

Gov. Rick Perry on Thursday defended his removal of three commissioners looking into whether the state used bad science to execute an innocent man, suggesting too much was being made of his move.

On Wednesday, Perry decided to replace three members of the Texas Forensic Science Commission, including its chairman, just two days before it conducted a hearing to examine the case of Cameron Todd Willingham. The new chairman canceled the meeting.

"What's happening is that we're following the normal protocol of the state. Those individuals' terms were up, so we replaced them," Perry said.

But others who have followed the Willingham case accused the governor of working to delay and derail the commission's investigation.
There's no real question, at least among sentient beings, what Perry is up to here. The case is the one highlighted in The New Yorker recently. There is little question, based on the article, that Mr. Willingham was innocent of the crime for which he was executed, and that the forensic evidence used against him was a complete misreading of the physical facts of the fire. (Read the article, if you haven't already. It's worth it.) As the article points out:

Former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor has said that the “execution of a legally and factually innocent person would be a constitutionally intolerable event.”
Which is pretty much what we have with the execution of Mr. Willingham. And Rick Perry knows that. And the problem? If that becomes an inescapable conclusion based on a Texas government agency's report, Rick Perry is suddenly stuck having to accept that the death penalty failed. And in Texas, it is better to execute 100 innocent men than for a politician, especially a conservative Republican politician, to admit fatal flaws in the application of the death penalty. This is a state, after all, where the governor can do no more than issue a 30 day stay of an execution. But he is held accountable for his political opinion about executions, and that had better be a positive stance. Perry proves this with his opinion of the evidence that there was no crime:

Perry recently discounted the findings of a myriad of scientists, who in three separate reviews concluded that Willingham fire investigators relied on old, discredited indicators of arson – "wives' tales," as some called it. They said the fire might have been caused by a faulty space heater or bad wiring.

In an interview last month with The Dallas Morning News, Perry said, "I'm familiar with the latter-day supposed experts on the arson side of it," and made quotation marks with his fingers to underscore his skepticism. He said the records he reviewed before allowing the execution showed "clear and compelling, overwhelming evidence that he was in fact the murderer of his children."
Those "myriad findings" include a 51-page report to the Forensic Sciences Commission, concluding there was no evidence of arson in the Willingham case, the same conclusion "Tne New Yorker" article came to. And what's going to happen now?

"If you've got a whole new investigation going forward, it makes a lot more sense to put the new people in now and let them start the full process rather than having people in for a short period of time and then replace them," Perry said.
Which should push the matter beyond the next elections, and hopefully bury the issue. And that's obvious even to Paul Burka, a conservative political pundit who never quite gave up on George W. Bush:

Let’s call this what it is: a cover-up. The new chairman, Williamson County district attorney John Bradley, is a political ally of Perry’s (see below) who famously tough on crime. It would be a conversion of mythic proportions if he were to agree with the investigators’ criticism. He now controls when the commission will meet, and you can bet that the report will not be heard or discussed in a public forum before the March 2 primary.
As Burnt Orange Report notes, this is not going down well, even in Texas. Whether the voting public cares more about justice than about executions, though, remains to be seen. And I'm not sure "The New Yorker" has a wide enough distribution in the state yet for many people to even know who Mr. Willingham was. Why am I not sanguine? Well, here's Kay Bailey Hutchison's statement on the case:

"Why you wouldn't at least have the hearing that the former member suggested, to find out what the facts are, when a man has been executed and now the facts are in dispute - just like DNA has given more tools to determine the facts," she said. "I am strongly for the death penalty, but always with the absolute assurance that you have the ability to be sure - with the technology that we have - that a person is guilty.
Gonna be hard to twist that into a rallying cry that Rick Perry is a corrupt politician who puts his political needs ahead of the needs of a justice system. Besides, Willingham was a criminal, and he's dead, right?

Where are the Texas Rangers when you need them?

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