Third Court Rules in Willingham Case
Matter must be referred to Judge Stubblefield
By Jordan Smith,
9:14AM, Tue. Dec. 21, 2010
The Third Court of Appeals has ruled that the region's presiding administrative judge must consider whether to grant recusal of Travis Co. District Judge Charlie Baird in the case of executed inmate Cameron Todd Willingham.
In October, Baird heard testimony of fire experts, brought by lawyers for Willingham, during a proceeding seeking to posthumously clear Willingham's name. Baird was also asked to consider whether cause exists to initiate a court of inquiry into the actions (or inaction) of state officials prior to Willingham's death. At issue there is whether state officials (likely the State Fire Marshals Office and Gov. Rick Perry) relied on faulty science (and ignored new evidence) to conclude that Willingham set the 1991 fire at his Corsicana home that killed his three young children.
Navarro Co. District Attorney R. Lowell Thompson had sought to recuse Baird, who he said he believed couldn't be objective on the matter (because he had received an award from an anti-death penalty group, or alternately, because he'd once ruled in favor of upholding Willingham's death sentence while Baird was serving as a justice on the Court of Criminal Appeals). Baird heard his claim but ruled that Thompson was not a party to the action brought by Willingham's surviving relatives. Baird allowed the hearing to continue and Thompson went to the Third Court seeking to stop the hearing. The hearing had just concluded when the Third Court granted Thompson's motion, staying the proceeding – meaning, in effect, that the court would not allow Baird to enter his final ruling in the matter.
In its opinion, written by Chief Justice Woodie Jones, joined by Justice Bob Pemberton (Justice David Puryear also considered the case and filed a dissent to the two-judge majority ruling), the court concluded that Baird should have recused himself or else refer that motion to the region's presiding judge, Williamson County's Billy Ray Stubblefield, for consideration.
In dissent, Puryear concluded that although the hearing was unique – and that he believed Baird might have been stepping outside his authority – that didn't mean that the appeals court had the authority to intervene, he wrote.
You can read the opinions here.
(The above post was corrected on 12/22 to better reflect the substance of Puryear's dissent.)