DA asks judge to recuse himself from disputed arson case that led to execution of Texas manBy Jeff Carlton, AP
Tuesday, October 5, 2010
DA: Judge should recuse self in Texas arson case
DALLAS — The district attorney whose office prosecuted a Texas man who was executed for setting fire to his home and killing his three daughters asked a judge to recuse himself from a hearing that could declare the executed man innocent.
Navarro County District Attorney R. Lowell Thompson filed a motion in state district court in Austin late Monday asking that Judge Charlie Baird recuse himself from Wednesday’s hearing in the case of Cameron Todd Willingham.
Baird, as a former member of the court of Criminal Appeals, already heard details of the case and voted to uphold Willingham’s conviction, according to the motion. Thompson also questioned whether Baird is impartial, noting he won a “Courage Award” this year from the Texas Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty.
Baird granted the unusual court of inquiry hearing after the Innocence Project filed a petition asking him to “restore the reputation” of Willingham and declare he was wrongly convicted. The judge declined to comment on Tuesday.
John Bradley, the top prosecutor in Williamson County who also chairs the Texas Forensic Science Commission, has criticized the new petition as being a politically motivated attempt to undermine the death penalty. Bradley was named to the forensic commission post by Gov. Rick Perry in a move viewed by many as a way to suppress new findings that cast doubt on Willingham’s guilt.
“What they are interested in is finding the poster boy for the abolition of the death penalty,” Bradley said of the Innocence Project, a New York legal center. “And they want to make Willingham that poster boy. And they chose poorly, because Willingham is a guilty monster.”
If Baird were to clear Willingham, it would mark the first time that an official in Texas, the nation’s most active death penalty state, formally declared someone was wrongly executed.
The Texas Forensic Science Commission is separately looking into whether investigators were negligent in ruling the fire was caused by arson. Commissioners last month rejected Bradley’s efforts to close the case and conclude that fire investigators did not commit professional misconduct.
“I am shocked that Judge Baird has not recused himself,” Bradley said. “This is an outrageously political move. I would start with the ridiculous notion that an advocacy group has hand-picked a liberal judge to get the outcome they want.”
Gov. Rick Perry told The Associated Press on Tuesday that he would “see what they came up with” before stating his opinion on the upcoming hearing. Later, his office issued a statement clarifying his position: “Nothing the Austin court does can change the fact that Todd Willingham was convicted and sentenced to death by a jury of his peers for murdering his three young daughters,” the statement said.
A disputed arson finding made by a pair of fire investigators following the 1991 deaths of Willingham’s three daughters is at the heart of the case.
A jury in Corsicana, south of Dallas, convicted Willingham of capital murder in 1992. He was executed in 2004, after Perry turned down his final appeal despite evidence from a renowned fire expert that there was not enough evidence to support the arson determination.
Testimony from fire investigators was the primary evidence against Willingham. They said they found pour patterns and puddling on the floor, signs someone had poured a liquid accelerant throughout Willingham’s home. The defense didn’t present a fire expert of its own because the one they hired also said the fire was caused by arson.
Willingham’s conviction was upheld nine times.
“Fact of the matter is, I’m the only person alive, so far as I know, who knows what really happened and I am prevented from saying because of the attorney/client privilege,” David Martin, Willingham’s trial lawyer, wrote in an e-mail to the AP on Tuesday. “The verdict was correct,” he added.
But the investigators’ conclusions have been strongly challenged by several fire experts. Craig Beyler, the chairman of the International Association of Fire Safety Science and one of the foremost experts in the field, wrote last year in a report for the commission that the investigators didn’t follow standards in place at the time and did not have enough evidence to make an arson finding.
The opinions of a state fire official in the case were “nothing more than a collection of personal beliefs that have nothing to do with science-based fire investigation,” Beyler wrote. The deputy state fire marshal appeared “wholly without any realistic understanding of fires and how fire injuries are created.” The State Fire Marshal’s Office continues to stand behind the arson finding.
The science commission was set to hear testimony from Beyler last year. But a few days before that meeting, Perry removed three members of the commission and appointed Bradley, a conservative ally, as its chairman. Bradley subsequently canceled the meeting amid accusations that Perry was interfering with the inquiry.
“Government officials have tried to silence a State commission looking into the Willingham case and the validity of the underlying arson evidence,” the Innocence Project said in its petition.
Willingham publicly maintained his innocence until he was put to death. His wife, however, later gave a sworn affidavit saying he confessed to setting the fire.
This is not the first time an innocence group in Texas has used a court of inquiry, an obscure and rarely used legal procedure, to attempt to clear the name of an inmate.
Jeff Blackburn, chief counsel for the Innocence Project of Texas, successfully petitioned for a similar hearing in Baird’s court in the case of Tim Cole. Earlier this year, Perry granted the state’s first posthumous pardon to Cole, who died in prison after being wrongly convicted of rape.
Cole was convicted in the 1985 rape of a Texas Tech University student in Lubbock. The Army veteran was cleared by DNA evidence in 2008, nine years after he died in prison of complications from asthma at age 39.
Associated Press writer Kelley Shannon in Austin contributed to this report.
Tags: Arson, Criminal Investigations, Criminal Punishment, Dallas, Fires, Forensics, North America, Texas, United States, Violent Crime