Innocent Man Off Death Row

Ernest Ray Willis exonerated after 18 years behind bars

On Oct. 7, Ernest Ray Willis walked away from Texas' death row a free man – the eighth condemned prisoner to be exonerated since the reinstatement of the death penalty. Willis was sentenced to die for the 1986 arson murder of Elizabeth Belue and Gail Allison in Iraan in West Texas. In a 2000 hearing, trial Judge M. Brock Jones Jr. ruled that Willis – then an unemployed oilfield worker with chronic back problems – had been given antipsychotic drugs (supposedly for his back pain) while in jail awaiting trial, which rendered him unable to assist in his defense. Charmingly, prosecutors used his drug-induced haze against him at trial, drawing the jurors attention to his vacant stare in the courtroom and calling it the remorseless look of "cold fish eyes," reported the San Antonio Express-News. Willis "merely stared and watched very impassively, very cold heartedly, much like he probably did that morning outside the fire when he watched and listened."

This summer, U.S. District Judge Royal Furgeson tossed Willis' conviction, citing the needless drugging and the prosecution's suppression of a psychologist's finding that Willis was not a dangerous person – a key determination needed for the imposition of the death penalty. Further, Pecos Co. District Attorney Ori T. White now says the fire that killed the two women was probably not arson at all; rather, he said, it was likely caused by an electrical problem – a broken ceiling fan or faulty outlet. "He simply did not do the crime," White told the Associated Press. "I'm sorry this man was on death row for so long and that there were so many lost years."

Willis joins seven other former death row inmates – including Randall Dale Adams and Clarence Brandley – who have been exonerated in Texas since 1974.

A note to readers: Bold and uncensored, The Austin Chronicle has been Austin’s independent news source for over 36 years, expressing the community’s political and environmental concerns and supporting its active cultural scene. Now more than ever, we need your support to continue supplying Austin with independent, free press. If real news is important to you, please consider making a donation of $5, $10 or whatever you can afford, to help keep our journalism on stands.

Support the Chronicle  

READ MORE
MORE Death Penalty
Death Watch: Madness and Forensics
Death Watch: Madness and Forensics
Two capital cases raise psychological and evidentiary issues

Jordan Smith, Oct. 4, 2013

Death Watch: Running Low on Poison
Death Watch: Running Low on Poison
The state of Texas has three executions' worth of pentobarbitol

Jordan Smith, Aug. 9, 2013

More by Jordan Smith
'Chrome Underground' Goes Classic Car Hunting
'Chrome Underground' Goes Classic Car Hunting
Motoreum's Yusuf & Antonio talk about the biz and their reality TV debut

May 22, 2014

APD Brass Shifts Up, Down, Across
APD Brass Shifts Up, Down, Across
Musical chairs at Downtown HQ

May 9, 2014

KEYWORDS FOR THIS STORY

Ernest Ray Willis, death penalty, Ori T. White, Royal Furgeson, M. Brock Jones Jr., Randall Dale Adams, Clarence Brandley

MORE IN THE ARCHIVES
NEWSLETTERS
One click gets you all the newsletters listed below

Breaking news, arts coverage, and daily events

Can't keep up with happenings around town? We can help.

Austin's queerest news and events

Updates for SXSW 2019

All questions answered (satisfaction not guaranteed)

Information is power. Support the free press, so we can support Austin.   Support the Chronicle