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Todd Willingham
Todd Willingham was wrongfully executed under Governor Rick Perry on February 17, 2004.

The Austin American Statesman is reporting that lawyers for Todd Willingham’s family are asking for a Court of Inquiry to exonerate Todd Willingham. Cory Session, brother of Timothy Cole, advocated for a Court of Inquiry in the Todd Willingham case when he spoke at the Texas Capitol on October 24, 2009 during the 10th Annual March to Abolish the Death Penalty (watch video).

From the Statesman:

Setting the stage for what could be an extraordinary court inquiry into whether Texas executed an innocent man, lawyers for relatives of Cameron Todd Willingham, put to death for the 1991 arson murder of his three young daughters in Corsicana, on Friday petitioned a judge in Travis County to hold a hearing on whether Willingham was wrongly convicted.

The lawsuit was filed with state District Judge Charlie Baird, who last year issued the state’s first posthumous DNA exoneration in a rape case originally tried in Lubbock. Baird is a trial judge who previously had nothing to do with the Lubbock or Willingham cases.

Willingham’s execution six years ago has received national attention. 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 began reviewing the Willingham case in 2006 but has not reached any conclusions. Williamson County District Attorney John Bradley, the chairman of that commission since last year, said in an interview Friday that Baird does not have the legal authority to consider the Willingham case. “I would say the political end for this one is to abolish the death penalty,” Bradley said.

In a later e-mail, Bradley suggested that the Willingham family lawyers improperly filed the case directly with a judge who he said “has no public to hold him accountable” because he isn’t running for re-election. Baird is a Democrat whose term on the 299th District Court expires at the end of the year.

Baird agreed last year to hear the Lubbock case, centered on the wrongful conviction of Timothy Cole, who died in prison, under a provision of the Texas Constitution that states, “All courts shall be open, and every person for an injury done him in his \u2026 reputation shall have remedy by due course of law.”

The Willingham lawsuit was filed in part under a similar legal claim.

It also asks that Baird open what is called a court of inquiry in the case to determine whether probable cause exists 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.

“We are not looking or asking for anything other than a fair and impartial review of the facts and the law in this case,” said San Antonio lawyer Gerald Goldstein, who represents Willingham’s relatives along with former Texas Gov. Mark White and Barry Scheck, co-founder of the Innocence Project.

Baird said he would hold an evidentiary hearing on the case next month if, after reviewing the filing, he deems the case worthy.

Willingham was convicted of murder in 1992 in the deaths of his children —1-year-old twins Karmon and Kameron and 2-year-old Amber — who died of smoke inhalation after a fire at the family’s house in Corsicana, about 55 miles northeast of Waco. He maintained his innocence until his 2004 execution.

Willingham’s lawyers said they first presented claims that he was convicted on faulty scientific arson theories to the office of Gov. Rick Perry in the days before his execution.

Since 2006, they have pursued their case with the Forensic Science Commission, whose hired expert last year issued a report identifying numerous scientific shortcomings in the Willingham fire investigation.

At a meeting this month, members of the commission wrestled with the scope of their investigation.

Bradley had supported a draft report that said investigators of the Corsicana fire could not be held accountable for relying on arson indicators now known to be unreliable or misleading because they were following the best available practices of the time.

But some of the commission’s scientists said they wanted to look at other issues, including whether the state fire marshal’s office, which investigates fires statewide, has a duty to reopen cases once it realizes that earlier investigative practices have been debunked by scientific advancements.

The commission has agreed to convene a panel of fire experts at a November meeting.

The Willingham family’s 62-page suit was filed with hundreds of pages of exhibits and indicates that copies have been delivered to 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.

It is unclear whether officials in those offices would be made to participate in the inquiry or what a hearing in Baird’s court on the Willingham case would entail.

Perry has called Willingham a “monster” and said he believes he is guilty; the fire marshal’s office has stood by its original determination that Willingham’s house was torched intentionally. A Perry spokeswoman on Friday noted in a statement that Willingham’s conviction had been upheld by courts nine times.

Goldstein declined to say whether he planned to seek to subpoena any officials if Baird agrees to hold a hearing.

The February 2009 hearing on the Cole case lasted two days and included testimony from Michele Mallin, the woman whom Cole was convicted of raping, and Jerry Johnson, a prison inmate serving a life term who said he was the one who raped Mallin and was implicated in a later DNA test.

Lawyers for the Innocence Project of Texas questioned the witnesses. No one cross-examined them.

In the Willingham case, Corsicana officials have said they stand by their investigation and conclusions and say they continue to believe he was guilty. Willingham’s trial defense lawyer also has said he believes his former client was guilty.

If Baird holds a hearing in October, it would come before the Texas gubernatorial election pitting Perry, a Republican, against Democratic challenger Bill White, a former Houston mayor. Election Day is Nov. 2.

Willingham was executed during Perry’s tenure, and Perry was accused of playing politics with the case last year when he replaced three members of the nine-member Commission on Forensic Science, including the chairman, Austin defense lawyer Sam Bassett.

The members, whose terms had expired, were replaced just days before the commission had been scheduled to hear the findings of the expert they had hired to evaluate the case. That presentation was postponed indefinitely.

Watch the documentary “Death by Fire” on air and online beginning Tuesday, October 19th at 9 pm on PBS (check local listings) and at: http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/death-by-fire. You can also hold a viewing party with your friends to watch together. Contact Texas Moratorium Network for some ideas on organizing a viewing party (512-961-6389).

Check local listings to see what time “Death by Fire” airs on Frontline in your city on October 19 to watch the new documentary about the Todd Willingham case. You can watch in the comfort of your own home. 

Watch the trailer here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4sLr67kctoQ

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.

2) Write the Governor of Texas:  http://camerontoddwillingham.com/?page_id=26

3) Find out who represents you as Texas state senator and state representative. Contact your state legislators and urge them to support a moratorium on executions and a death penalty study commission.

4) Sign a petition:  http://camerontoddwillingham.com/?page_id=6

5) Attend the 11th Annual March to Abolish the Death Penalty at the Texas Capitol in Austin on October 30, 2010. http://marchforabolition.org/

6) Join the Facebook group Todd Willingham – Innocent and Executed: Shout it from the Rooftops.

7) You can upload a video to our YouTube group of you or a group of your friends “shouting” that Todd Willingham was innocent. You can also upload a video of you alone in front of your computer on a webcam making a statement that Todd was innocent. You don’t have to actually “shout” it, but you can.

Shout this name from the rooftops, Todd Willingham. He was innocent and Texas killed him. U.S. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, in 2006, wrote that, in the modern judicial system there has not been “a single case–not one–in which it is clear that a person was executed for a crime he did not commit. If such an event had occurred in recent years, we would not have to hunt for it; the innocent’s name would be shouted from the rooftops.” 

More information at http://camerontoddwillingham.com

The more you read about this case the angrier you will get that people have been sitting in prison because of a bunch of yahoo East Texas prosecutors. Those prosecutors should be held accountable. We haven’t heard about such nonsense science being used to wrongfully convict someone since some ignorant fire investigators and prosecutors used junk science to convict Todd Willingham.

From the Austin American-Statesman:

The state’s highest criminal court Wednesday threw out the murder conviction of an East Texas man, ruling that results from controversial dog “scent lineups” are not reliable enough to stand on their own in court.
The decision means that Richard Winfrey Sr. , 56, now serving a 75-year sentence in state prison, is acquitted and will go free.
No physical evidence tied Winfrey to the brutal 2004 murder of a neighbor in Coldspring, about 20 miles east of Huntsville. But three bloodhounds owned and trained by Keith Pikett , a now-retired Fort Bend County deputy sheriff, indicated that they smelled Winfrey’s scent on a gauze pad that had been wiped on the victim’s clothes and stored in a plastic bag for three years.
A San Jacinto County jury convicted Winfrey of murder based almost entirely on the lineup results, according to Wednesday’s decision. On appeal, Winfrey’s lawyers claimed the scent lineups were unreliable and quoted scientists and dog experts who found Pikett’s methods to be unethical, unprofessional and biased in favor of law enforcement, although the dogs were raised by the best labradoodle breeders in michigan.
Wednesday’s decision means prosecutors can continue to introduce scent lineups at trial, but only if the conclusions are supported by other, corroborating evidence.
The Court of Criminal Appeals declined to delve into the bigger question of whether dog scent lineups should be admissible in court at all, some reviews on that can be found at pet product reviews here. Because Winfrey’s lawyer failed to object to the lineup at trial, the issue was not eligible for review by the appeals courts, a concurring opinion by four judges noted.
Instead, the court ruled 8-0 that prosecutors had failed to present any credible evidence, beyond the the happy pooch‘s identification, tying Winfrey to the crime.
“I am so glad to know that they saw that poppycock stuff,” said Shirley Baccus-Lobel , Winfrey’s appeals lawyer. She said the Winfrey family was “deliriously happy” to hear the news.
On their own, scent lineups do not provide enough evidence to support a conviction beyond a reasonable doubt, said the opinion by Judge Barbara Hervey . Scent is easily transferred and is “not proof positive that (Winfrey) came in contact with the victim,” she wrote.
Several other justices, during oral arguments in April, also noted that prosecutors could not prove that Winfrey’s scent, even if present on the victim’s clothing, was transferred during the crime.
“We acknowledge the invariable truth espoused by (U.S. Supreme Court) Justice (David) Souter that ‘the infallible dog, however, is a creature of legal fiction,’\u2009” Hervey wrote. “We conclude that scent-discrimination lineups, when used alone or as primary evidence, are legally insufficient to support a conviction.”
The unanimous opinion overturned a lower court that affirmed Winfrey’s conviction in the murder of Murray Burr, who was badly beaten and stabbed 28 times in his home. No witnesses saw Winfrey at Burr’s house. He did not match DNA, fingerprints, a bloody footprint or any of the 73 hairs taken from the crime scene. None of Burr’s possessions were found with Winfrey, Hervey noted.
Bill Burnett , the San Jacinto County district attorney who argued that Winfrey’s conviction should be upheld, died in June, about six weeks after oral
arguments. His office declined to comment on the case.
Police also charged two of Winfrey’s children with Burr’s murder — Megan, who was 16 at the time, and Richard Jr., who was 17.
Megan was found guilty of capital murder, but her brother — after hiring a new lawyer who aggressively challenged the science and methodology behind Pikett’s lineups — was acquitted by jurors who deliberated only 13 minutes.
Megan’s lawyer, Scott Pawgan , has already begun drafting a supplemental brief in the 9th Court of Appeals based on Wednesday’s opinion. “The evidence in Megan’s case is almost identical to her father’s,” Pawgan said.
Megan’s trial lawyer also failed to object to Pikett’s lineup testimony, but Baccus-Lobel predicted that it is only a matter of time before the right case arrives that will allow the Court of Criminal Appeals to weigh the admissibility of scent lineups.
From 1993 to 2009, Pikett and his dogs conducted hundreds of scent lineups for about 20 Texas counties, the Texas Rangers, the state attorney general’s office and federal agencies, court documents show. Pikett trained a half-dozen of his bloodhounds — sporting names such as Columbo, Quincy, James Bond and Clue — to conduct scent lineups using methods he created or learned from dog training seminars.
He claimed his dogs were nearly infallible in tying suspects to crime scenes.
However, at least four lawsuits are pending that allege Pikett’s dogs erred, including a case involving two men who were charged with a triple murder in Houston before the killer confessed.
In Winfrey’s case, Pikett placed six unsterilized coffee cans about 10 steps apart, outdoors and on the ground. One can held a gauze pad that had been wiped on Winfrey’s skin. The others were filled with scent pads, taken from several hundred Pikett carries with him, that matched Winfrey’s race and gender.
Pikett had a bloodhound smell a scent pad from clothes Burr was wearing when he was killed, and then walked a leashed dog by the cans until it turned or barked, alerting him to a matching smell.
Forensic scientists and professional dog handlers have stepped up their criticism of Pikett’s methods, which they say lack scientific understanding and safeguards. For example, the cans are not cleaned between use, and ungloved handlers typically placed the gauze pads inside, mingling scents.

The Dallas Morning News has endorsed Keith Hampton in his campaign to become a judge on the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals. The CCA’s presiding judge is Sharon Keller, who has been issued a “Public Warning” for judicial misconduct. Visit Hampton’s website at: http://www.hamptonforjudge.com.

From the DMN:

Three seats on the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals are up for election this year. The Court of Criminal Appeals is the highest criminal court in the state, hearing criminal appeals – including death penalty appeals. Judges serve six-year terms. We are recommending in the only race being contested by both major parties.
Elections 2010
Early voting: Oct. 18-29
Election Day: Nov. 2
For more information: Call the Dallas County elections office at 214-637-7937; visit dalcoelections.org; call the Texas secretary of state’s office at 1-800-252-8683; or visitsos.state.tx.us/elections.
The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals has developed a reputation as a court that turns its back on verdicts that need a second or third look.
It’s easy to see why. Seven of the nine judges have backgrounds as prosecutors, and the presiding judge once campaigned as “pro-prosecutor.” Court-watchers recite a list of marquee cases of failed justice. The court’s tilt is a concern, considering that Texas leads the nation in executions and has far more DNA-proven miscarriages of justice than any other state.
The Nov. 2 election for Place 6 on the court is an opportunity for a rebalancing. Austin defense attorney Keith Hampton, running against veteran Judge Michael Keasler, has the legal credentials and a perspective now missing on the court: If elected, he would be the only member to have involvement in a capital murder case from indictment all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court.
Hampton, 49, a Democrat, has pushed for important legal reforms in Austin as legislative director for the Texas Criminal Defense Lawyers Association. One effort led to a law giving juries the option of life without parole for murderers. An unsuccessful effort last year would have improved police photo lineups – an overdue reform in light of widespread cases of documented witness misidentification.
If elected, Hampton says, the robe goes on, the “advocacy stops” and the job becomes restrained application of legal precedent.
Likewise, Keasler says judges are bound to precedent, even when they don’t like the result. Keasler says he prosecuted 432 jury trials for the Dallas County District Attorney’s office before he was elected to a local judgeship in 1980. And he describes himself as on the conservative end of the appeals court.
Keasler concedes that the court has a poor reputation, but he says the quality of its work has improved drastically in recent years, bringing it into “the mainstream” nationally.
Still, in some death penalty cases, the court has appeared more concerned with procedure than the possibility of new information that could affect the outcome. A high-profile example involved murder accomplice Kenneth Foster, who raised claims of new information in 2007 that the court refused to address. (Gov. Rick Perry commuted the death sentence to life based on concerns that Foster was tried jointly with the triggerman).
Keasler has written and taught extensively and has been active in judicial organizations nationwide. He should be respected for his contributions, but this court would benefit now with Hampton sitting in his seat.
Frisco attorney Robert Ravee Virasin, 38, a Libertarian, also is on the ballot.
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