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TX:Lawyers for executed Willingham's family ask for hearing
Sat Sep 25, 2010 06:52

Lawyers for executed man's family ask for hearing in Travis County
Judge asked to review whether man was wrongly convicted of arson murder in deaths of daughters in Corsicana.
By Steven Kreytak
Published: 11:14 p.m. Friday, Sept. 24, 2010

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.

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