AUSTIN — A Travis County judge today ordered a court of inquiry to determine if Cameron Todd Willingham was wrongfully convicted and executed in the deaths of his three daughters, who perished in a Corsicana house fire in 1991.
Judge Charlie Baird, who also conducted a court of inquiry that led to the exoneration of wrongfully convicted inmate Tim Cole of Fort Worth, told the Star-Telegram that he has decided to move forward with the court of inquiry into the Willingham case after reviewing a petition filed Friday by lawyers representing Willingham’s relatives.
“I have decided that the petition warrants a hearing,” Baird said in a telephone interview. The inquiry will be held in his courtroom on Oct. 6-7, but Baird said it could be extended if necessary.
Willingham was found guilty of deliberating setting the fire that killed his daughters — 2-year-old Amber and 1-year-old twins Karmon and Kameron. The unemployed Corsicana mechanic went to his death in 2004 insisting that he was innocent.
The case became the center of national attention after several fire experts concluded that the arson investigation against Willingham was flawed and based on outmoded techniques. It has also been the focus of a controversial review by the Texas Forensic Science Commission, which opened an inquiry into the arson investigation in 2006.
Baird said he made his decision early this morning after staying up until midnight Sunday reviewing the 55-page petition.
“Obviously the most troubling aspect of this — and it just dwarfs everything else – is whether or not to believe that an innocent person has been executed by the State of Texas,” he said.
The inquiry could lead to Willingham’s posthumous exoneration if the findings warranted, said Baird. He said he has no preconceived view on Willingham’s guilt or innocence but felt that questions raised by Willingham’s case justified further examination.
“I agree with them that they’re entitled to a hearing but I wouldn’t say at any level that he’s innocent,” Baird said. “A lot of this stuff has either been done piecemeal or in secret and this will bring it all to light.”
Baird said he has ordered a subpoena to demand the appearance of the jail trusty who testified that Willingham admitted the crime while he was in jail awaiting trial. He also sent invitations to Gov. Rick Perry’s chief counsel, the Texas Fire Marshal, the Navarro County district attorney and the state prosecuting attorney, but said their appearance wasn’t necessary.
Perry has defended the execution, describing Willingham as a “monster” whose appeals were repeatedly rejected by state and federal courts. Willingham supporters have accused Perry of interfering with the commission’s inquiry by ordering a shakeup of the membership during a crucial phase of the inquiry, but the governor has dismissed those assertions.
Baird said he could make a ruling within two weeks after the court of inquiry concludes it review.
Texas Moratorium Network (TMN) is a non-profit organization with the primary goal of mobilizing statewide support for a moratorium on executions in Texas. Significant death penalty reform in Texas, including a moratorium on executions, is a viable goal if the public is educated on the death penalty system and is encouraged to contact their elected representatives to urge passage of moratorium legislation.
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