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News reports of today’s Court of Inquiry hearing in Todd Willingham innocence case.
The New York Times reports in Family’s Effort to Clear Name Frames Debate on Executions:
But they also say that the hearing is more than symbolic — it could cast in a new light the Lone Star State’s record on executions. And more broadly, they argue, it is a cautionary tale about the power of flawed science to sway a courtroom, and a glaring injustice that could affect debates over the fairness of the death penalty.
That debate has been framed, in part, by a 2006 opinion written by Justice Antonin Scalia of the United States Supreme Court, in which he said that the dissent in a case had not cited “a single case — not one — in which it is clear that a person was executed for a crime he did not commit.”
Many who oppose the death penalty have taken Justice Scalia’s statement as a challenge, and argue that the Willingham case is their proof.
During an unprecedented hearing completed just before an appeals court ordered it to stop, state District Judge Charlie Baird on Thursday heard from two leading fire experts who said Cameron Todd Willingham, executed in 2004, was convicted based on faulty science.
A jury convicted Willingham in 1992 of killing his three young daughters by setting fire to his Corsicana house. Shortly before his execution, the first in a string of experts found that investigators relied on bogus science to determine that the fire was intentionally set.
“There is not a single item of evidence at that fire scene that would even suggest this was arson,” said Gerald Hurst, an Austin chemist who has studied fire for decades.
Lawyers for Willingham’s family petitioned Baird last month to pronounce that Willingham was wrongfully executed and to determine whether there is probable cause that state officials committed a crime in their handling of his case just before execution.
After a hearing that lasted a little more than three hours, Baird said he would make a ruling on the case at a later date.
About that same time — just before 5 p.m. — the 3rd Court of Appeals in Austin ordered Baird not to take any further action in the case.
Former Texas Governor Mark White on Todd Willingham: “If there’s no arson, there’s no crime, and, therefore, he is innocent.”
Newsweek is reporting that former Texas Governor Mark White will deliver the summation at the Court of Inquiry on Todd Willingham’s innocence. The hearing is scheduled to reconvene on Thursday, October 14, at 1:30 PM in Judge Charlie Baird’s courtroom. White says in Newsweek, “If there’s no arson, there’s no crime, and, therefore, he is innocent.”
Host a Viewing Party and Watch World Premiere of Documentary about Todd Willingham “Death by Fire” Oct 19
You could invite friends over to watch the documentary with you. If you are in high school or college, you could gather your friends, watch “Death by Fire” together and then discuss what you think about the case and about the death penalty.
Did Texas execute an innocent man? Several controversial death penalty cases are currently under examination in Texas and in other states, but it’s the 2004 execution of Cameron Todd Willingham—convicted for the arson deaths of his three young children—that’s now at the center of the national debate. With unique access to those closest to the case, FRONTLINE examines the Willingham conviction in light of new science that raises doubts about whether the fire at the center of the case was really arson at all. The film meticulously examines the evidence used to convict Willingham, provides an in-depth portrait of those most impacted by the case, and explores the explosive implications of the execution of a possibly innocent man.
After you watch the full documentary on October 19, consider writing a letter to the editor of your local newspaper about what you think about the Willingham case and how you think governments should respond to the news that an innocent person was in all likelihood executed. Should the death penalty be repealed? Should there be a moratorium on executions?
What else can you do?
1) Discuss the issue with your friends and family.
4) Sign a petition: http://camerontoddwillingh
5) Attend the 11th Annual March to Abolish the Death Penalty at the Texas Capitol in Austin on October 30, 2010. http://marchforabolition.o
October 6-7 — Judge Charlie Baird to convene a Court of Inquiry in case of Cameron Todd Willingham to determine if Texas wrongfully convicted and executed an innocent person.
Before October 8 — The three-judge all-Republican review panel is expected to announce its decision in appeal of Judge Sharon Keller, who was given a “Public Warning” by the State Commission on Judicial Conduct. Various possible outcomes include dismissal of the finding by the SCJC; allowing Keller to appeal again at a full hearing of all the evidence; or sending the case back to the SCJC for it to reconsider its “Public Warning”.
October 13 — The U.S. Supreme Court will hear oral arguments in case of Hank Skinner to determine if he may seek testing of DNA evidence through a civil rights lawsuit. Skinner is on death row in Texas. If he is not allowed to test the DNA evidence, then Texas may execute an innocent person.
October 14 — Texas is scheduled to execute Gayland Bradford, who would be the 464th person executed since 1982 and the 225th under current Texas Governor Rick Perry. Bradford may have mental retardation. His IQ was tested as 68 by the Texas Department of Corrections when he was a 17-year-old first offender.
October 19 — Frontline on PBS to air documentary “Death by Fire” about the case of Todd Willingham. Watch it on on PBS on TV or online at the Frontline website. Willingham was executed in 2004 but there is a growing consensus that he was wrongfully convicted and was innocent. Hold a watch gathering in your school or home.
October 21 — Texas is scheduled to execute Larry Wooten, who would be the 465th person executed since 1982 and the 226th under current Texas Governor Rick Perry.
October 30 — 11th Annual March to Abolish the Death Penalty at the Texas Capitol in Austin starting at 2 PM. Last year’s march was the largest anti-death penalty rally in Texas since 2000. Organized by a statewide coalition of Texas anti-death penalty organizations and other groups. Special guests include innocent, death row exonerees, family members of murder victims, community leaders, family members of people on death row and others.
November 2 — Election for governor of Texas between Republican Rick Perry, who was governor in 2004 when Todd Willingham was wrongfully executed, and Bill White the Democratic former mayor of Houston, as well as Kathie Glass from the Libertarian Party and Deb Shafto from the Green Party.
November 8 — Judge Kevin Fine in Houston will convene a hearing on the constitutionality of the death penalty and whether the fact that innocent people are at risk of execution puts the death penalty in violation of the U.S. Constitution.
A state district judge will hold a hearing next week to determine whether Texas wrongfully executed a man in 2004 for the arson murders of his three young daughters.
Not one of the more than 1,200 U.S. executions that have taken place since a judicial ban was lifted in 1976 has been declared wrongful by a judge, so the hearing into the case of Cameron Todd Willingham will be keenly watched.
The case could be politically explosive because Willingham was put to death under the watch of Texas Gov. Rick Perry, a tough-on-crime Republican who is running for re-election in November and whose handling of the case has been criticized.
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Dozens of death row inmates have been exonerated in recent years, many because of DNA testing and all before they were put to death. Legal experts say it is highly likely that an innocent person has been executed, and Willingham is widely viewed as the most probable case.
“I think Cameron Todd Willingham will be the first person executed around whom there is a consensus that he was wrongly executed,” said Richard Dieter, director of the Death Penalty Information Center, a Washington-based think tank.
State District Judge Charlie Baird told Reuters by e-mail that he will hold the rare legal proceedings Wednesday and Thursday.
“The issues that I will hear evidence on are the issues raised in the petition filed on behalf of Mr. Willingham’s surviving relatives,” Baird said.
The petition requests that a Court of Inquiry “issue a declaration that Mr. Willingham was wrongfully convicted and (repair) the injury done to his reputation.”
Perry issued the first posthumous pardon in Texas last March to Tim Cole, who died in prison from an asthma attack while serving a 25-year sentence for a wrongful aggravated sexual assault conviction.
Baird had declared him innocent during an exoneration hearing, and next week’s will be of a similar nature.
The ultimate legal implications of an execution being declared wrongful by a judge are unclear.
“This is uncharted legal territory because we normally don’t have courts looking into whether somebody was wrongfully executed,” said Jeff Bellin, a law professor at Southern Methodist University in Dallas.
Willingham was executed for the 1991 murders of his three children, who died in a fire in their home in the northeast Texas town of Corsicana. Willingham insisted he was innocent.
The case gained national prominence after leading experts concluded that the techniques used to determine that the fire was set were based on flawed science.
A state hearing into the matter was abruptly canceled last year after Perry removed three members of the panel, prompting cries of political interference.
Asked about next week’s hearing, a Perry spokesperson said: “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.”
Texas is by far the most active death penalty state, having carried out 463 executions since 1982, over a third of the national total since the Supreme Court lifted a temporary ban on the death penalty in 1976.
And Perry, who took office in December 2000 and is the longest-serving governor in Texas history, has overseen more than 240 executions — by far the most of any governor in modern U.S. history.
Cynthia Orr, an attorney for the Willingham family, said they hoped the hearing would establish his innocence.
“That’s the entire goal and focus of this hearing,” she said.
From the Dallas Morning News Editorial Board, October 1, 2010.
The questions surrounding the Cameron Todd Willingham case have become a constant drumbeat in Texas’ death penalty discussion. The underlying unknown: Did Texas err when it executed Willingham?
The case of a man who was put to death for arson murder of his three daughters has become the state’s most discussed, most studied and most maligned capital murder case. But despite an array of efforts to re-examine the questionable science that sent Willingham to his death, no legal determination has been made on whether he was wrongfully convicted.
That’s what state District Judge Charlie Baird aims to do, starting with a hearing on Wednesday.
This is a bold move by Baird – one that opens up the Travis County judge to plenty of criticism if he proceeds clumsily. But handled with care, this posthumous hearing has the potential to provide important information about the mistakes in this case and to expose weaknesses in Texas’ approach to the death penalty.
To ensure that opening this court of inquiry is a useful exercise, Baird must heed two cautions:
• Don’t rush to judgment. Baird faces no looming deadline and has no reason to speed through the complexities of arson science. He has scheduled a two-day hearing but should allow more time as needed to hear from witnesses and thoroughly examine evidence.
• Listen to both sides. While this seems obvious, it’s not clear whether Navarro County investigators and prosecutors who worked on this case will participate. Their perspective is essential to understanding the original Willingham verdict.
Gov. Rick Perry’s office has been quick to point out that Willingham’s conviction was upheld multiple times, suggesting that all of this is well-trod ground. But in fact, the appeals process is narrowly focused on ensuring that the defendant received a fair trial – not on examining new scientific evidence.
Post-trial accusations that Willingham investigators relied on folklore and junk science to find that the fire was arson weren’t examined on appeal. This week’s hearing will be the first time that a court has taken a hard look at whether relying on outdated arson science prompted the state to make a fatal error.
The Texas Forensic Science Commission also is considering related questions in the Willingham case. But commissioners are focused primarily on questions about professional negligence and standards for forensic investigators; their mission does not include a big-picture look at the entire case.
Baird’s challenge is to ensure that this hearing augments the commission’s work, rather than undermines it.
No court can say with certainty whether Willingham was innocent. But this re-examination of the case could expose flaws in the judicial system and guide future reforms.
This hearing, which comes six years after Willingham’s execution, is an imperfect approach. But perfection became impossible when the state executed Willingham with so many questions left unanswered.
Text of Petition for Court of Inquiry Filed on Behalf of Todd Willingham’s Family in the 299th District Court
The Court of Inquiry convened in response to this petition has been scheduled for 1:30 PM on October 6-7, 2010 in the 299th District Court in Austin.
Sate District Judge Charlie Baird will hold a two-day hearing in Austin October 6-7 in the Todd Willingham innocence case. The hearing starts at 1:30, but you are welcome to join us outside the building at 12:30 with signs supporting Todd Willingham’s innocence.
The location is:
Blackwell-Thurman Criminal Justice Center
509 West 11th, 8th floor
Austin, Texas 78701
Map and directions
Sate District Judge Charlie Baird announced today that he will hold a two-day hearing in Travis County next week in the case of Cameron Todd Willingham, who was executed in 2004 in the 1991 arson murder of his three young daughters in Corsicana.
Lawyers for Willingham’s relatives on Friday filed a lawsuit asking Baird to hold the hearing to determine whether Willingham was wrongly convicted and whether there is probable cause to charge Texas officials with official oppression.
The suit claims that those officials, who were not named, committed that crime by failing to consider before Willingham’s execution that he was convicted on discredited arson science.
Several arson experts in recent years have rejected the science that the investigators who testified at Willingham’s trial used to determine that the fire that killed his daughters was intentionally set. The Texas Forensic Science Commission has been reviewing the science in the case since 2006.
The hearing has been scheduled for 1:30 p.m. on Oct. 6 and 7.
Baird, right, wrote today in an e-mail to the American-Statesman that he has issued a bench warrant to have Johnny Everett Webb, who testified at Willingham’s 1992 trial, brought to Travis County for the hearing. Webb told a jury during that trial that Willingham, above, confessed to the arson while they were in the same jail.
Baird said that he has appointed a lawyer to represent Webb, who is incarcerated in Navarro County, during the Travis County hearing.
Lawyers for Willingham’s family served their 62-page suit along with the hundreds of copies of exhibits on officials at Gov. Rick Perry’s office, the state fire marshal’s office, the Navarro County district attorney’s office and the office of the state prosecuting attorney, which represents the state in cases at the Court of Criminal Appeals.
Baird wrote in today’s e-mail that he has mailed letters to those parties notifying them of the hearing dates and “invited them to attend if they wanted to present evidence on, for or against the issues raised in the petition.”
Read more about the Willingham family lawyers petition in Travis County here.