Baird To Rule on Recusal From Willingham Hearing

Willingham family seeks posthumous declaration of innocence

An inquiry into whether Texas executed an innocent man in 2004 when it put to death Cameron Todd Willingham is set to resume today (Thursday). The hearing was put on hold last week after District Judge Charlie Baird said he would wait for lawyers representing Willingham's surviving relatives to respond to a motion – from Navarro County District Attorney Lowell Thompson – seeking to recuse Baird from hearing the case at all. Baird is likely to rule today on that motion. (Regardless of whether he grants or denies the motion, Baird's decision will move forward to the region's presiding judge, Williamson County Judge Billy Ray Stubblefield, for review.)

Willingham was put to death for the 1991 arson-murder of his three young children in Corsicana. Willingham maintained his innocence, and since his death, the case has been plagued with questions regarding whether the fire-science used to convict him was flawed and outdated. To date, nine fire experts have weighed in to say the science used by Corsicana fire officials and the Texas fire marshal was indeed outdated. Late last month Willingham's surviving relatives – including his mother, Eugenia – filed a petition in Baird's court asking for him to declare Willingham actually innocent, thus restoring his reputation. The petition also asks Baird to open a court of inquiry to determine whether various unnamed state officials (likely including the Fire Marshal's Office, Gov. Rick Perry, and the Board of Pardons and Paroles) committed official oppression by failing to act – prior to Willingham's execution – on information that challenged the science used to convict him. (Baird's hearing is designed to determine whether there is actually enough evidence to call for a formal court of inquiry.)

The inquiry requested by Willingham's family is like that requested by the family of Timothy Cole, who died in prison before he could be cleared for a Lubbock rape he did not commit. After two days of testimony in that case, Baird concluded last year that Cole was, in fact, innocent.

In the motion filed Oct. 4, Thompson – who inherited the controversy over the capital murder case – argues that Baird should be recused in part because he heard an appeal of Willingham's case when he was a judge on Texas' Court of Criminal Appeals. There, Baird actually voted with the majority to uphold the conviction. Alternately, Thompson argues that Baird might not be impartial because comments on the Austin American-Statesman's website have suggested that Baird is biased in favor of defendants and that Baird has also been given the Courage Award by the Texas Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty.

One thing seems certain: If the hearing does go forward today, it most certainly won't include any official input from Perry's folks. Baird said in court Oct. 6 that upon receiving the Willingham petition he sent letters to the parties named in it, inviting them to participate in the hearing. All but Thompson declined, including Perry's office, which concluded not only that "convicted murderer" Willingham has already had plenty due process but also that Willingham's family's request for him to be declared wrongfully convicted is "inexplicable." According to Perry's general counsel, Caren Bur­bach, there is no "legal basis" for such a declaration – though it would in fact be like the one Baird made in the Cole case, as Baird acknowledged last week. "I will say this: These are pretty much the same proceedings we engaged in on behalf of Tim Cole," Baird said, "which the governor later recognized and who was posthumously pardoned by the governor."

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More Cameron Todd Willingham
The Case That Wouldn't Stay Closed
The Case That Wouldn't Stay Closed
The facts: a tragic house fire, a man executed, a governor under suspicion. Everything else is a mystery.

Jordan Smith, March 11, 2011

Long-Awaited Testimony Rejects Arson Conclusion
Long-Awaited Testimony Rejects Arson Conclusion
Forensic Science Commission hears expert testimony on Willingham fire investigation

Jordan Smith, Jan. 14, 2011

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Cameron Todd Willingham, Charlie Baird, Lowell Thompson, Texas Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty, Rick Perry

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