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.

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

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