AUSTIN — A crowd of anti-death penalty protestors, fueled by the controversy over the 2004 execution of Cameron Todd Willingham and changes to the Texas Forensic Science Commission that is looking into the case, gathered at the steps of the Capitol on Saturday for the 10th annual March to Abolish the Death Penalty.
Dozens of protesters marched down South Congress Avenue and recited chants for an end to capital punishment and declared that Gov. Rick Perry was guilty of homicide. The goal, said Scott Cobb, president of the Texas Moratorium Network, was to make Perry admit to Willingham’s innocence and to end the death penalty, which several speakers called corrupt, racist and biased against the poor.
Willingham was convicted of the murder of his three young daughters by setting fire to his Corsicana home in 1991. Recent investigations have questioned the charge of arson.
“We’re certainly convinced now after a review by expert scientific investigators that there is no evidence of arson,” Cobb said.
Joining the protesters were exonerated ex-death row inmates Curtis McCarthy, Ron Keine and Shujaa Graham. Corey Session, brother of Timothy Cole, a man who died in a Texas prison in 1999, spoke as well. Cole’s posthumous exoneration has led to the creation of the Timothy Cole Advisory Panel on Wrongful Convictions, which held its first meeting Friday. Session said he believed Willingham would be exonerated if his case were heard by an advisory panel.
Willingham’s appellate attorney, Walter Reaves, and Willingham’s pen pal and frequent death row visitor, Elizabeth Gilbert, spoke at the event. Gilbert, who said she has three binders full of letters from Willingham, said that after looking into his case, she’s convinced of his innocence.
“Todd was a very caring person,” said Gilbert, who began corresponding with and visiting Willingham in 1999 after getting his information at an anti-death penalty demonstration in Philadelphia. “He was a considerate, polite, funny, smart person. He was a real human being.”
Eugenia Willingham, mother of Willingham, originally was scheduled speak but decided not to. She said she canceled at the last minute in part because she was tired and the drive from her home in Ardmore, Okla., was long. She also said she didn’t want to be a distraction from the focus on her son’s case.
However, Willingham said she also isn’t entirely against the death penalty.
“I feel there probably should be a death penalty,” she said. “But I feel like the system should be reformed in a way so that innocent people aren’t executed. I feel like there are too many people on death row that are innocent.”
Although there had been speculation that the case against Willingham was flawed, much of the national attention on Willingham came after Perry’s decision to not reappoint four state forensic panelists while they were investigating the case. Perry said they were replaced because their terms had expired.
Craig Beyler, a Maryland-based arson expert who had been hired by the Forensic Science Commission, has spoken out against Perry’s action and, in his report, questioned the finding of arson.
Perry responded to Beyler’s criticism by calling Willingham a “monster” and saying Beyler is politically motivated. Beyler has denied those claims.
Perry spokesman Allison Castle said Perry stands by his support for the death penalty. Castle noted that Willingham’s conviction was upheld by nine courts and the death penalty has been upheld as a punishment by the U.S. Supreme Court.