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The QueQue

The QueQue: State murder? Nothing to see here, High jail suicide rate continues, Sleepy shale watchdogs, Cost of healthy aquifer going up

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State murder? Nothing to see here

If history is any indicator, we should have known state officials would never willingly settle a years-long investigation into one of the state’s most contentious executions, the death of Cameron Todd Willingham. On Friday, Attorney General Greg Abbott issued a ruling that will once and for all quash the state’s official investigation into the evidence used to convict Willingham, executed in 2004 for the arson-murder that claimed his three daughters. According to the ruling, the Texas Forensic Science Commission may review old cases, provided it doesn’t actually use any old evidence to do so.

The opinion, requested by former FSC chair and Williamson County District Attorney John Bradley, marks the unsatisfying end of the years-long investigation to determine if the state executed an innocent man, and, if so, who’s responsible for that mistake. Abbott’s ruling also marks the finale of a case that’s been stalled through official channels all along the way.

Before Willingham’s execution in 2004, fire-science experts had already begun to seriously question the science used to convict him. Since then, roughly a dozen arson experts have reviewed the case, finding the State Fire Marshal’s Office investigation into the blaze seriously flawed. The evidence, they say, indicates the fire that killed Willingham’s children was accidental.

Gov. Rick Perry refused to issue a 30-day stay and let Willingham’s execution march forward in 2004. Soon after the execution, the Innocence Project lodged a complaint over the Willingham case with the Forensic Science Commission, whose hamstrung investigation sputtered along until last year. Days before the commission was set to finally dig into the case in 2009, Perry, eying a primary fight ahead in the governor’s race, removed key FSC members and appointed Bradley, an ally who immediately put the Willingham investigation on hold.

When the commission finally began hearing testimony from fire-science experts last spring, Bradley began to question his own commission’s authority to even touch the case, prompting a letter in January asking Abbott to weigh in.

In its long-awaited draft report in April, the commission outlined how to improve standards for fire investigations, but declined to finish the report until after Abbott’s ruling. Now it’s unlikely the commission will ever answer the all-important question of whether the state executed an innocent man. Surely those thousands repenting on Perry’s cue in Houston this Saturday will have Willingham foremost in their minds.

High jail suicide rate continues

Leroy Sanchez Jr., 25, died at the Christus Santa Rosa Hospital last Thursday, days after Bexar County Detention Center guards found him hanging from a bed sheet in his cell. Sanchez’s death now sets the Bexar County jail on the uneasy track to surpass last year’s inmate suicide tally.

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