Ernest Willis, the West Texas man who spent 17 years on death row for an arson-murder he didn’t commit, Monday called on Gov. Rick Perry to admit Texas may have erred when it executed Cameron Todd Willingham for setting a fire that killed his three children.
“I think he should step up to the plate, call for a death penalty moratorium, listen to the experts and see what kind of situation we’ve got,” Willis said in a telephone interview from his Midland home.
The cases of Willis and Willingham were among those to be discussed at an Oct. 2 meeting of the Texas Forensic Science Commission that was derailed when Perry unexpectedly removed the commission’s chairman and two other members. Perry has insisted Willingham was guilty of setting a 1991 Corsicana house fire in which his young children died. Willingham’s ex-wife also has expressed belief in his guilt.
But Willis, who talked with Willingham while both were on death row, said he is convinced the Corsicana auto mechanic was innocent.
“Most of the people on death row are guilty,” he said, “but there’s a small percentage who are not. … Willingham told me his was innocent. His case was almost identical to mine. I believed him.”
Willis said he referred Willingham to his team of New York lawyers whose 12 years of work ultimately set him free.
“I don’t know what he did,” Willis said. “I know they didn’t take up his case.”
Cites grave doubts
Willis, 64, was sentenced to die for a 1986 house fire in the Pecos County town of Iraan in which two sleeping women perished. In 2004, a federal judge ruled that authorities wrongly had dosed Willis with anti-psychotic drugs during his trial — leaving him a virtual zombie — and that he should be retried or set free. A Pecos County district attorney then dropped the charge, admitting that the Iraan fire appeared to have been an accident.
Willis noted that seven national fire experts, including Baltimore, Md.-based Craig Beyler, whose report was to be heard at the Oct. 2 meeting, now have raised grave doubts about the accuracy of the Corsicana investigation.
Of his own experience he said, “It made it a lot tougher knowing that I was innocent. If I had been guilty, I would have been ready to face the music. But I tried never to give up hope. I was always preparing myself for release.”