Freed death row inmate calls on Perry to halt executions
Ernest Willis, the West Texas man who spent 17 years on death row for an
arson-murder he didn't commit, Monday called on Gov. Rick Perry to admit
Texas may have erred when it executed Cameron Todd Willingham for setting
a fire that killed his 3 children.
I think he should step up to the plate, call for a death penalty
moratorium, listen to the experts and see what kind of situation we've
got, Willis said in a telephone interview from his Midland home.
The cases of Willis and Willingham were among those to be discussed at an
Oct. 2 meeting of the Texas Forensic Science Commission that was derailed
when Perry unexpectedly removed the commission's chairman and 2 other
members. Perry has insisted Willingham was guilty of setting a 1991
Corsicana house fire in which his young children died. Willingham's
ex-wife also has expressed belief in his guilt.
But Willis, who talked with Willingham while both were on death row, said
he is convinced the Corsicana auto mechanic was innocent.
"Most of the people on death row are guilty," he said, "but there's a
small percentage who are not. … Willingham told me his was innocent. His
case was almost identical to mine. I believed him."
Willis said he referred Willingham to his team of New York lawyers whose
12 years of work ultimately set him free.
"I don't know what he did," Willis said. "I know they didn't take up his
Cites grave doubts
Willis, 64, was sentenced to die for a 1986 house fire in the Pecos County
town of Iraan in which 2 sleeping women perished. In 2004, a federal judge
ruled that authorities wrongly had dosed Willis with anti-psychotic drugs
during his trial leaving him a virtual zombie and that he should be
retried or set free. A Pecos County district attorney then dropped the
charge, admitting that the Iraan fire appeared to have been an accident.
Willis noted that seven national fire experts, including Baltimore,
Md.-based Craig Beyler, whose report was to be heard at the Oct. 2
meeting, now have raised grave doubts about the accuracy of the Corsicana
Of his own experience he said, "It made it a lot tougher knowing that I
was innocent. If I had been guilty, I would have been ready to face the
music. But I tried never to give up hope. I was always preparing myself
(source: Houston Chronicle)
What the Willingham case is really about
The ex-wife of Cameron Todd Willingham now alleges that he confessed to
murdering their 3 children in her last death row meeting with him, shortly
before his 2004 execution. At last, the truth comes out in the
high-profile case of a questionable arson-murder conviction. Right?
Not so fast. Stacy Kuykendall's dramatic statement published Sunday in the
Fort Worth Star-Telegram does nothing to bolster the shaky arson evidence
that led to Willingham's guilty verdict. As the Chicago Tribune's Steve
Mills reported yesterday, Kuykendall told a newspaper after that final
visit that her ex-husband stuck by his original story. Moreover,
Kuykendall's new statement contradicts earlier ones made to investigators,
and under oath.
Besides, the only person besides Kuykendall who knows what was said in
that conversation is dead and buried.
We're not calling Kuykendall a liar. But her published remarks over the
weekend, far from bringing clarity to the confounding case, only make it
On the other side, activists claiming that Texas executed a blameless man
are risking their own credibility and helping to politicize what started
as a scientific search for truth.
Fire expert Craig Beyler, whose report for the Texas Forensic Science
Commission challenged conclusions in the state's arson investigation, did
not rule out arson. He only said that the state had fallen far short of
proving its case. That's an important difference.
All along, the issue at the center of the Texas Forensic Science
Commission's review of this case has been the science used to help secure
a conviction. How solid were the conclusions state arson investigators
drew from the evidence? This is what the commission was going to discuss
before Gov. Rick Perry shamelessly thwarted the investigation by sacking
commission members, putting the probe in limbo.
The purpose of the commission's work was never meant to decide guilt or
innocence, but to scrutinize the process used to discover and present
evidence of arson to a jury. The governor's actions have blocked that
search for truth.
Unfortunately, many of the governor's critics have responded by portraying
Willingham as a noble victim. They should be careful. As Sunday's Dallas
Morning News pointed out, he was far from a saint. That does not make him
guilty of murder, of course, but death penalty opponents would be foolish
to sentimentalize this man and take focus away from the science at the
center of the case.
Texans have the right to see a full and impartial discussion of the
forensic methods used in this case. Stacy Kuykendall told the
Star-Telegram that the continuing public discussion about the brutal
affair "has been extremely painful for me and my family." That's no doubt
true, and it's regrettable.
The state-sanctioned killing of Cameron Todd Willingham, however, is not a
private matter, nor is it a settled one. What counts most is not a
mother's emotional suffering, or death penalty opponents' hopes, or
Willingham's character, or the governor's political future. What counts
most is the truth, no matter what the ultimate verdict. If Gov. Perry is
so confident of Texas justice, he should not fear putting it under the
(source: Editorial, Dallas Morning News)
Wishful thinking on both sides of Willingham case
So did Texas execute an innocent man on Feb. 17, 2004? The answer is
obscured by the crossfire between 2 camps: Those who desperately want the
answer to be no, and those who desperately want the answer to be yes.
One can understand why Gov. Rick Perry and his supporters want the answer
to be no. One can understand why rabid anti-death penalty critics want the
answer to be yes.
But political reputations, public- and private-sector egos and our
opinions about the death penalty need to be shelved so the Cameron Todd
Willingham case can be assessed on its merits.
I am an ardent death penalty supporter, but nothing would impede my
arrival at a proper conclusion that an innocent man was executed. My very
support of capital punishment is predicated on my faith in the guilt of
those on death row in Texas and every other state. I would never fudge
evidence against the condemned to justify my desire to see the line move
Death penalty opponents are morally bound to mirror that standard. Their
wish for zero executions must never lead to the sloppy embrace of
questionable voices criticizing verdicts and asserting innocence.
The popular narrative so far has featured Perry's removal of some members
of the Texas Forensic Science Commission on the eve of what would have
been uncomfortable testimony from a fire expert who finds fault with the
methodology of the investigative work that contributed to Willingham's
1992 conviction for burning down the Corsicana house with his three
Smelling a cover-up, voices whose dislike for Perry is exceeded only by
their distaste for the death penalty shout that the delay in the
commission's business must mean Willingham is innocent.
At the head of this presumptuous pack is Barry Scheckof the Innocence
Project, a group that deserves accolades for finding DNA evidence that has
sprung provably innocent people from prison.
But Scheck believes the Willingham story is just as cut and dried, and he
is profoundly mistaken. "There can no longer be any doubt that an innocent
person has been executed," he proclaims recklessly, despite detailed
rebuttals from the people who actually worked the case.
Freeing truly innocent people is apparently not enough for Scheck, who now
seeks the heroic Holy Grail of anti-death-penalty advocates a provable
case of an innocent man put to death.
If his zeal compromises his objectivity, so be it. Such is the occasional
byproduct of activism. But what if the "expert," awaited with panting
anticipation by enemies of Perry and capital punishment, is a hack, too?
Dr. Craig Beyler is not reacting well to losing his moment in the
spotlight. Even though his report is out and he may yet detail it before
the commission, he is on a rampage of ego-soaked vendettas. Calling the
governor "clueless" and demanding that newly named commission members
resign is not the sound of a confident professional. It is the sound of a
petulant narcissist whose snarky language brought his condescending report
into question in the 1st place.
And let the record show that Beyler does not say the fire that killed
Willingham's 3 children was not arson.
The Perry camp asserts that the replaced commission members were at the
end of their terms. This is true. But it's also true that they should have
foreseen the bludgeoning they would take for timing that makes them look
suspicious at best.
Beyler should have testified, on time, before the commission as it stood.
Then we should have heard from city officials who recommend retesting the
samples from the house using modern techniques. That does not smack of a
cover-up. There is no shortage of current and former witnesses willing to
rebut Beyler about the investigative techniques used at the time.
But while the commission is limited to forensic examination of the arson
issue, everyone should perform the mouse clicks needed to see the
compelling additional evidence that the jury relied on for the conviction,
evidence reviewed over the course of five appeals over 12 years. Start at
the Corsicana Daily Sun, which has spoken to several figures glad to
There will be no clear finding that Texas executed an innocent man. I am
comfortable with the conscientiousness of the original investigators, a
responsible jury and a turnstile of 5 appeals.
Criticize the timing of the commission replacements if you like. I have.
But the notion that this is a clear cover-up of an innocent death is the
fantasy of those looking for the end of the death penalty, the Perry
administration or both.
(source: Mark Davis, Dallas Morning News)
Willingham case a test of Perry's character
Gov. Rick Perry is facing a character test in the matter of Cameron Todd
Willingham. So far, it's been an epic fail for the governor. And if Texans
let him get away with this brazen attempt to evade responsibility, we'll
be party to a grave moral failure.
First things first: If Willingham really did kill his 3 daughters, he
deserved his 2004 date with death at Huntsville. Anyone who takes the life
of another in cold blood should pay for it with his own. But being found
guilty by a jury is not the same as actually being guilty of the crime
which is why I reluctantly oppose the death penalty. This is no longer the
Wild West. If we are going to send a man to his death, an irrevocable
punishment, the margin of error must be vanishingly small.
It's unlikely we will ever devise a capital punishment system guaranteed
to smite only the truly guilty. DNA evidence greatly enhances the
possibility of accuracy, but those results are only as reliable as crime
lab technicians. Remember Joyce Gilchrist, the incompetent Oklahoma City
forensic scientist whose work helped send 11 convicts to their deaths and
who has seen numerous inmates, some on death row, exonerated since
authorities learned what a disaster she was?
Granted, Gilchrist's expert testimony concerned less sophisticated kinds
of lab analysis, which was refuted later by DNA testing. The point is that
perfection is an impossible standard for anything involving human beings.
We can live with something less than perfection when it doesn't involve
ending someone's life. But how can the state's executing a thousand
killers compensate for the moral horror of putting to death a single
This is the issue in the now-notorious case of Willingham, whose guilt in
the deaths of his three children in a Corsicana house fire has now been
cast into grave doubt by scientific arson analysis. Shortly before
Willingham's execution, legendary Austin scientist and fire investigator
Gerald Hurst faxed results of his independent review of the case to Perry
and the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles. Despite Hurst's categorical
destruction of the "expert" case for Willingham's guilt, the governor and
the board remained unmoved. Willingham protested his innocence until his
Was Willingham wrongly executed? The work of the state's Forensic
Commission was on the verge of debating a powerful report by noted fire
investigator Craig Beyler annihilating the arson findings that sent
Willingham to his grave. And then Perry stepped in to effectively halt the
investigation. Since then, the entire nation has seen Texas humiliated by
then-prosecutor John Jackson claiming on ABC's Nightline that Willingham
might have killed his kids because he liked heavy metal music, and, hey,
you know how scary metal heads are.
Perry is plainly afraid that his own investigators will discover that the
state likely put a blameless man to death. But what is he afraid of?
Political fallout? What is mere politics when the credibility of a system
that might have killed an innocent man and might yet kill other innocents
is at issue? Our skittish governor has taken to calling Willingham a
"monster." Even if he was, we put men to death for their deeds, not their
dispositions. He needed killin' is no rationale for execution.
A real leader a brave and honorable one would want to know the truth, so
that if evidence requires it, he and others responsible for Willingham's
death could make restitution and repent for shedding the blood of a
blameless man railroaded to his execution. If hard-hearted Perry is so
certain of Willingham's guilt, why object to an investigation?
More importantly, if Willingham was wrongly put to death, all decent
capital punishment supporters should want strict measures taken to ensure
that this catastrophe never happens again. If we are going to have the
death penalty, we have the solemn duty to use it responsibly. Right?
Surely we Texans aren't the kind of people so enamored of retribution that
the actual guilt or innocence of those executed in our names is of no real
This is not only a problem for Rick Perry. We live in a democracy. It's on
all of us. If Texas really did kill an innocent man, that's a terrible
tragedy. But if Texas and its governor lack the courage to face the truth
and deal squarely with it, the tragic act will be magnified by deep and
lasting disgrace, and we will all stand condemned by our collective moral
It's much harder to live with painful truths than with comforting lies.
But a people who would be on the side of right have no choice.
(source: Rod Dreher is a Dallas Morning News editorial columnist)
Texas should reconsider the death penalty—-Convicted killers'
exoneration casts doubts on the ultimate punishment
Natalie Ellis has spent the last few years fighting for justice. Along
with other students at the University of Texas at Arlington's Innocence
Network, she's dedicated her life to proving that Claude Simmons and Chris
Scott are innocent of the murder of which they were convicted 12 years
On Friday, her hard work paid off. Dallas County Judge Robert Burns
offered the 2 men his "most sincere apologies for the injustice" they'd
borne and gave them their lives back. For the 1st time in over a decade,
Simmons and Scott walked out of the courtroom free men.
It was a rare happy moment from our criminal justice system; hopefully, it
will also encourage the state of Texas to reconsider its use of the death
Although every precaution is taken to ensure that only the guilty go to
prison, the sad truth is that innocent men and women are occasionally
convicted of the most heinous crimes and stripped of their rights. In the
best of cases, people like Natalie Ellis manage to belatedly right that
miscarriage of justice and set them free. In many others, it's impossible
to definitively prove a convict's innocence.
While great strides have been made in forensic science, there always
remains a chance that the person convicted of a murder may not have
committed it. As long as they are alive, groups like the Innocence Network
can help prove their innocence. Once they've been killed, nothing can be
The death penalty destroys any chance that a convict can be proven
innocent. It is an irrevocable act; once carried out, no exoneration is
Life imprisonment is a better punishment for convicted killers because it
leaves open the possibility of new evidence coming to light. If the
convict is guilty of the crime, he will languish in a cell until his dying
day, which is punishment enough. If, though, a mistake has been made, the
chance remains to make things right.
Nathaniel French is a junior theater studies major.
(source: SMU Daily Campus)