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.
So far this year, three Bexar County Detention Center inmates have died in suicide attempts at the jail, the same number of jail suicides in all of 2010. Along with Sanchez, guards found Adrian Rodriguez, 31, hanging from a sheet during a routine 30-minute cell check on June 23. Still, Rodriguez, pronounced dead at a hospital two days later, wasn’t considered an in-custody death, Texas Commission of Jail Standards’ executive director Adan Munoz said, since Rodriguez was given a personal recognizance bond the day after his suicide attempt at the jail.
A total of four inmates have died at the Bexar County jail this year, including Pamela Anguiano, 25, who died in the jail’s detox unit on July 20.
The frequency of inmate suicides at the Bexar County lockup started to raise eyebrows after 2009, when all six of the jail’s in-custody deaths were ruled suicides, three times the national average. Last year, acknowledging the problem, Sheriff Amadeo Ortiz requested a report from nationally recognized suicide-prevention expert Lindsay Hayes to identify problems and fixes for the jail.
In his report, Hayes called the jail’s suicide prevention system a “misnomer” and remarked, “It would appear that the jail system has an unexplained tolerance for potentially suicidal behavior.”
Munoz said the commission has looked into each of the jail’s four deaths this year, and that none have raised any red flags. None of the three inmates who committed suicide this year were labeled at-risk or were on suicide watch, he said, and all received a psychological evaluation at the jail. “For these latest cases, we’ve looked into them and they’re OK. Everything checks out,” Munoz said.
Sleepy shale watchdogs
How does one shatter dense oil shale thousands of feet below the ground with a toxic slurry and suck up the oil and gas in an environmentally responsible manner? Is safe “fracking” even possible? Among those that aren’t so sure, count the EPA, France, and the states of New York, West Virginia, and Arkansas.
Texas Railroad Commissioner David Porter set up an Eagle Ford Task Force last week, charged with … well … doing something. He announced the task force in the same breath as he blamed a contentious relationship with residents in North Texas’ Barnett Shale area on poor communications by the RRC and industry — as opposed to the appearance of arsenic, barium, selenium, and lead in drinking water in Dish, or Fort Worth-based Range Resources suing a family that brought complaints of water contamination to the EPA.
While the American Natural Gas Alliance lauded Porter for the “diversity of interests” present on the new panel, the Laredo-based Safe Fracking Coalition has slammed the body’s makeup, saying, “Commissioner Porter’s misguided decision to load the Eagle Ford Task Force with oil and gas company insiders and cheerleaders is unsettling from a public health and environmental standpoint.”
Que2 found 12 of the 22 members on the task force come straight out of the oilfield and oilfield services side of the equation, and two more members are economic development or jobs-training folks unlikely to challenge the allure of business the Eagle Ford has promised to ignite. After that, we’ve got a Texas Commission on Environmental Quality rep (enough said?) and a mixed bag of politicos, (one of whom, with Facebook postings like “Repeal obamacare” and “Yes to natural gas,” doesn’t inspire confidence).
Only four members of the task force tout real environmental bona fides that may keep water and air cleanliness at the top of their to-do list.
Cost of healthy aquifer going up
A series of meetings on proposed new fees for water users around parched Greater San Antonio continues this week and next. While an official recommendation on how best to maintain minimal spring flows on the Comal and San Marcos rivers during severe drought — and keep San Antonio on the good side of federal and state regulators in the process — is not expected until October, but it’s got a price tag with it. For the “average” San Antonio Water System customer using around 7,788 gallons per year, plan on an additional pass-through fee from the utility of between $4 and $4.23 per month (or about 7 percent), according to Dan Crowley, SAWS’ director of financial planning. The money will go to offset additional pumping fees that the Edwards Aquifer Recovery Implementation Plan wants to implement on industrial and city wells tapping the Edwards Aquifer. While Edwards Aquifer Authority spokesperson Roland Ruiz said those fees could be between an additional $39 and (“worst-case scenario”) $116 per acre-foot of water pumped, the EARIP has unofficially proposed a minimum of $64 per acre-foot — requiring $10 million to launch and another $20 million per year thereafter, Ruiz said. On top of that, the EAA will also likely seek increases to pay for water-conservation rebates used to pay off growers (whose pumping is capped by state law at $2 per acre-foot) who choose not to irrigate in a given year. For the past few years, the EAA has paid out an estimated $3 million in rebates to growers per year, but the figure is growing, Ruiz said. “It could be that our board chooses to do something different with that rebate number,” Ruiz said. “If that happens, that number could come down.”
Among the industrial pumpers to be impacted by the additional fees requested by EARIP, the largest users are likely the rock quarries. So expect another “pass-through” when you’re building that stone deck.•
Thu Aug 11
6pm Edwards Aquifer Authority, Conference Center 1615 N St. Mary’s St