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Texas Monthly Video of Interview with Ernest Willis Talking about Todd Willingham: “I believe Texas killed an innocent man.”

Texas Monthly’s Michael Hall has a video interview with Ernest Willis, an innocent man who was sentenced to death in Texas for setting an arson fire that was later determined to have been an accidental fire. Ernest was released in 2004, just eight months after Todd Willingham was executed. A couple of weeks after Ernest was released Texas Moratorium Network sent him $1,000 donated by our members who wanted to help him a little with some cash after his release, because the State of Texas on the day of his release gave him just $100, 10 days of medication.

The transcript of the Texas Monthly interview is below:

You’re one of the only people to know what it’s like to be an innocent man on death row, but everybody else thinks you’re guilty. What did that feel like to you? When you had those two days left—we’re trying to put ourselves in the mind of [Cameron Todd Willingham] and what he was going through. What did that feel like?

Like I said, you know, I had prepared myself for it because I know on Texas death row very few people get off of Texas death row alive. And I had myself prepared pretty well for if that time come, I would just lay down and go to sleep and that would be it. I wouldn’t make a big deal out of it. I wouldn’t be hollering and screaming. I don’t really know what my last words would be. I don’t know whether I would have said, “Well, you’re killing an innocent man” or what. But I can only imagine what Todd Willingham was going through because I come within two days of execution myself. But to be strapped down on that gurney it’s hard to say what a person would say. I know that I wouldn’t be rambunctious and yelling and all that because I prepared myself for that. But at the same time it would be really, really tough because you spend all these years knowing that you’re innocent. And that’s the hard part of being in there. If I would have been guilty of this crime, I could have took it real easy. It wouldn’t have bothered me like it did. And Todd’s case was so similar to mine—I didn’t know Todd really well, but I had talked to him several times out on the rec [recreation] yard. We discussed a little bit about our cases and found out they was nearly identical. I believe in my heart and soul that he was an innocent man. I believe Texas killed an innocent man.

The thing of it is I could have been in the same position he was in but I had the New York attorneys and had the capital to do all that. All he had was these appointed attorneys and they don’t get enough money to bring forth what it takes. If he could have hung on just three or four or five more months he would have been in the same shape I was—he would have walked out of there a free man. Because he had the same evidence I had. There was very little—you know, of course, the prosecutors make us look like animals and all this stuff. I’ve been out five years now and I’ve had no problems. I’ve started my own business. I retired about two years ago. I think I’ve been a productive person ever since I got out. I’ve helped a lot of people. With the money I got I was able to help my kids and [ex-wife] Verilyn’s kids and do a lot of things I wanted to do.

I know Governor Perry is trying to sweep this under the carpet, like hey, he was guilty as sin. Well all of us does things. They called him a monster and everything; they called me a monster. That’s the way district attorneys do. They’re exempt from prosecution. The only way the death penalty can ever be fair is to hold these district attorneys liable for the things they do. They drugged me during my trial, and I’m sure that the district attorney had something to do with that. I’m sure he ordered the medication, and I was like a zombie the whole way through my trial. But unless you have the capital and they do something about these district attorneys, it will never be that way. I mean, they can say and do whatever they want to do and they don’t have to worry about lawsuits and prosecution or anything. It needs to start there. It needs to follow up with enough money for representation. I mean, these lawyers—there are a lot of good lawyers out there. They get $20,000 or $30,000 per case. I mean, hell, you can’t ever hire an expert witness for that. It’s not a fair situation. If you have money—that’s the difference between me and Todd. I had money backing me up. Just think, if I hadn’t had no more time than Todd Willingham had they would have killed me before I could prove my innocence. It takes a long time. Even after you get the representation and money to fight this thing and dig up whatever it takes to prove your innocence. I would have been in the same shape he was. I wouldn’t be here today.

What should Governor Perry do?

I really think Governor Perry should own up to it and say, “Hey, we made a mistake.” What Governor Perry is worried about, they killed an innocent man on his watch and he’s afraid he might not get reelected. He needs to own up to it. They know that if they own up to it there’s a big lawsuit there. They’re worried about that. And he’s worried about his own hide because governors are elected. It’s like Ori White, the prosecutor that testified at my expunction hearing and he said, “Hey, the man’s innocent.” How many district attorneys or governors do you know that are going to get up there and say that? Perry needs to just own up to it and say, “Hey, we did. We killed an innocent man. And I think we need to put a moratorium on this right now, study this thing, and see what we need to do to fix this.”

To start with, just like I said: Start with the district attorney. After you finish with the district attorney, try to get more money for representation. The attorneys that handled my case worked on my case for 12 years; they spent $5 million. I know the state of Texas can’t produce like that but give them enough money where they can hire experts and do a little digging and find out the facts on the case. You know, I’m sure that most people on death row are guilty. But when I left death row I could say in my heart I thought there were at least five people that were innocent. And, you know, I haven’t named no names because I don’t know how these people would feel about me bringing their situation up.

But I think Governor Perry needs to do that right thing. We have these seven experts. My case was identical to his. He’s just trying to let it go by. And it’s not going to hush up. I’m not going to hush up. People that care about the death penalty and the people that don’t know about the death penalty need to be informed. Most people—they believe in the death penalty; they don’t know anything about it. But once in a while it strikes close to home. And then they realize this is really a dirty deal. Anyone can be walking down the street and be in the wrong place at the right time. And they can put—just like on mine—everything was circumstantial evidence. The district attorney gets up there and says, “This is the way we think it happened.” And that’s not the way it happened. How can a civilized country like America sentence men to death on circumstantial evidence like that? It’s not right.

Governor Perry, he needs to step up to the plate and admit we made a mistake. And this thing is not going to go away. It’s not going to go away. He thinks, you know, eventually it will last a little while and then it will go away but we’re not going to let it go away. It’s not going to die down—step up to the plate and do your job.


EXECUTED: Cameron Willingham, executed in Texas in 2004 for an arson that killed his three children. He steadfastly maintained his innocence.

FREED: Ernest Willis, freed from death row in Texas in 2004 after the arson investigation that led to his conviction was discredited.

There are many similarities between these two alledged arson cases from Texas. The main difference is that one resulted in an execution, the other in the inmate being freed.

Some similarities in the cases:

  • Both convictions were based upon the theory that accelerants were used, indicating that the fires were intentionally set.

  • Both convictions were based on speculative interpretations of “crazed glass” that was found at the crime scene. The splintered glass was originally believed to be caused by an accelerant spray. However, crazed glass may also occur when cold water that is used to put out a fire hits hot glass.

  • The deputy state fire marshal, Manuel Vasquez, testified to similar conclusions in both cases.

  • The convictions were only five years apart (Willingham in 1987, Willis in 1992). Both were appealed to the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals, and both were denied.

  • In both cases, reinvestigations of the evidence by fire expert Gerald Hurst stated that the burn patterns and residue were consistent with “flash over,” a phenomenon unique to electrical fires, rather than being attributable to arson.

  • According to an investigation by the Chicago Tribune, Wilingham’s and Willis’ cases were “nearly identical” based upon investigations by Hurst and Louisiana fire chief Kendall Ryland. Then- Texas deputy fire marshall Edward Cheever has admitted, since the Hurst investigation and Willingham’s execution, that “we were still testifying to things that aren’t accurate today. They were true then, but they aren’t now… Hurst was pretty much right on. … We know now not to make those same assumptions.” (Chicago Tribune, December 9, 2004)

  • One key difference in the two cases was that Ernest Willis was represented in his federal appeals by the high-profile law firm of Latham & Watkins, which represented Willis without charge.
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