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 complications with a personal injury and 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.