When Gov. Rick Perry obstructed an investigation into the 2004 execution of a man, Cameron Todd Willingham, that experts say was innocent, he committed a crime against all of us. State executions are carried out in our names, collectively and individually. Subverting the truth in such a matter is a betrayal of the public trust that is difficult to describe or comprehend. Willingham was convicted of the arson deaths of his three daughters. Now experts say the evidence was deeply flawed.
But Perry may have also committed a crime against the U.S., and I’m not talking about his secession threats. He may have violated federal law, U.S.C. 18.1001. This is no trivial matter. An innocent man was executed. Federal laws and guidelines are in place to keep that from happening. Perry may well have violated those laws and guidelines, for which there are criminal penalties.
Last night, CNN commentator and political strategist Paul Begala wrote me with the following observation about my post earlier yesterday:
Let’s see if I get this straight: Perry and the teabaggers don’t trust the government to write an insurance policy, but they do trust the government to lock a man in a cage for years, to strap that man down on a gurney, and fill his veins with poison – in the case of poor Mr. Willingham, for a crime he did not commit. I know a lot of principled conservatives who oppose the death penalty, based on their distrust of government. Perry, of course, is neither truly principled nor truly conservative. He is a small man, a moral coward, and a political opportunist of the worst sort. Thank you for calling this to my attention.
There oughta be a law against hypocrisy such as Perry’s. It turns out there might be. Follow us on the jump for details on the statutes and guidelines Perry may have violated.
§ 1001. Statements or entries generally
(a) Except as otherwise provided in this section, whoever, in any matter within the jurisdiction of the executive, legislative, or judicial branch of the Government of the United States, knowingly and willfully— (1) falsifies, conceals, or covers up by any trick, scheme, or device a material fact; (2) makes any materially false, fictitious, or fraudulent statement or representation; or (3) makes or uses any false writing or document knowing the same to contain any materially false, fictitious, or fraudulent statement or entry; shall be fined under this title, imprisoned not more than 5 years or, if the offense involves international or domestic terrorism (as defined in section 2331), imprisoned not more than 8 years, or both. If the matter relates to an offense under chapter 109A, 109B, 110, or 117, or section 1591, then the term of imprisonment imposed under this section shall be not more than 8 years.
Doesn’t the language seem like it was written with Rick Perry in mind: “falsifies, conceals, or covers up by any trick, scheme, or device a material fact”? But there’s even more to it than that.
Texas receives millions of dollars in crime-fighting money from the Coverdell Forensic Science Improvement Grants Program of the U.S. Justice Department. To receive that money, Texas had to create the Texas Forensic Science Commission. The applying and receiving agencies, including the governor, certify that an independent, external agency exists that will investigate “negligence or misconduct substantially affecting the integrity of forensic results.”
Now, read this special note attached to the Justice Department’s application guidelines, because they specifically invoke U.S.C. 18.1001 cited above:
Note: In making this certification, the certifying official is certifying that these requirements are satisfied not only with respect to the applicant itself but also with respect to each entity that will receive a portion of the grant amount. Certifying officials are advised that: (1) a false statement in the certification or in the grant application that it supports may be subject to criminal prosecution, including under 18 U.S.C. § 1001, and (2) Office of Justice Programs grants, including certifications provided in connection with such grants, are subject to review by the Office of Justice Programs and/or by the Department of Justice’s Office of the Inspector General.
In other words, the United States Justice Department tells its Coverdell Grant recipients that they’d better have an independent forensics agency of the highest integrity, and they’d better not falsify, conceal, or cover up by any trick, scheme, or device a material fact.
If firing three members of the commission and bringing to a screaming halt an investigation and hearing about the execution of an innocent man is not a trick to cover up material facts, nothing is.
By the way, it won’t be a defense for Perry to claim the agency once was independent, or once had integrity. Justice expects those to be ongoing conditions, so to speak.
Furthermore, the Office of Justice Program’s Standard Forms and Instructions specify that grant applicants must follow the granting agency’s rules and guidelines:
4. It will comply with all lawful requirements imposed by the awarding agency, specifically including any applicable regulations, such as 28 C.F.R. pts. 18, 22, 23, 30, 35, 38, 42, 61, and 63, and the award term in 2 C.F.R. § 175.15(b).
The Coverdell requirements clearly state (in a pdf link found in the eligibility section, “2009 solicitation document”):
A certification regarding external investigations into allegations of serious negligence or misconduct. Each applicant must submit a certification that “a government entity exists and an appropriate process is in place to conduct independent external investigations into allegations of serious negligence or misconduct substantially affecting the integrity of the forensic results committed by employees or contractors of any forensic laboratory system, medical examiner’s office, coroner’s office, law enforcement storage facility, or medical facility in the State that will receive a portion of the grant amount.”
The Justice Departement and its Office of Inspector General regularly investigate Justice’s grant recipients. If they are not already investigating Perry’s attacks on state Forensic Science Commission, they soon will be.
As noted yesterday, law enforcement agencies throughout Texas receive major grants from the Coverdell program, and all the grants are contingent on the federal government’s insistence that an independent investigating agency of the highest integrity be empowered to certify forensic labs and look into negligence and misconduct. Perry may have put that crime-fighting money in jeopardy. That in itself should be a crime.
I am no lawyer, so I will have to leave it to Justice Department investigators to decide whether to pursue a criminal case against Perry. The law clearly prohibits acts of the sort Perry just committed. By destroying the independence and integrity of a critical law enforcement agency to conceal material facts, Perry did exactly what the law told him not to do.
The laws are intended to clean up sloppy forensics work that leads to gross injustices. They are intended to guard against injustices committed by crime labs the Forensics Commission oversees. It is a peculiar circumstance when a governor subverts the functions of the watchdog agency itself. Once again, there’s nothing trivial about laws and guidelines intended to guard against the execution of the innocent and other injustices. In the end, we can only hope that justice, as they say, will prevail.
Cross-posted at DogCanyon.org.