Judge asked to declare innocence of executed Texas man convicted in disputed arson case

By Jeff Carlton, AP
Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Judge asked to declare executed Texas man innocent

AUSTIN, Texas — Prosecutors connected to the case of a Texas man who was executed for setting fire to his home and killing his three daughters are fighting a new effort to clear him.

If the judge clears Cameron Todd Willingham, it will mark the first time an official in the nation’s most active death penalty state has formally declared that someone was wrongly executed.

John Bradley, the top prosecutor in Williamson County who also chairs the Texas Forensic Science Commission, said he believes the effort by the New York-based Innocence Project to have Willingham declared innocent is not about justice — or even the guilt or innocence of Willingham.

“What they are interested in is finding the poster boy for the abolition of the death penalty,” Bradley said. “And they want to make Willingham that poster boy. And they chose poorly, because Willingham is a guilty monster.”

State district Judge Charlie Baird will convene an unusual court of inquiry hearing Wednesday after the Innocence Project filed a petition asking him to “restore the reputation” of Willingham and declare he was wrongly convicted. Stacy Kuykendall, who is Willingham’s ex-wife and the girls’ mother, planned to hold a news conference before the hearing.

Navarro County District Attorney R. Lowell Thompson filed a motion late Monday asking that Baird recuse himself from Wednesday’s hearing. Thompson noted that Baird previously ruled on the case as a member of the Court of Criminal Appeals and questioned whether he is impartial, noting he won a “Courage Award” this year from the Texas Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty.

Baird declined to comment.

A disputed arson finding made by a pair of fire investigators following the 1991 deaths of Willingham’s 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 Gov. Rick 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. The defense did not present a fire expert because the one hired by Willingham’s attorney also said the fire was caused by arson.

But the investigators’ conclusions have been strongly challenged by several fire experts. Craig Beyler, the chairman of the International Association of Fire Safety Science, wrote in a report last year that 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 State Fire Marshal’s Office continues to stand behind the arson finding.

The Texas Forensic Science Commission, headed by Bradley, 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.

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