The AP report is, "Judge asked to declare executed Texas man innocent," by Jeff Carlton.
Prosecutors connected to the case of a Texas man who was executed for setting fire to his home and killing his three daughters are fighting a new effort to clear him.
If the judge clears Cameron Todd Willingham, it will mark the first time an official in the nation's most active death penalty state has formally declared that someone was wrongly executed.
John Bradley, the top prosecutor in Williamson County who also chairs the Texas Forensic Science Commission, said he believes the effort by the New York-based Innocence Project to have Willingham declared innocent is not about justice — or even the guilt or innocence of Willingham.
"What they are interested in is finding the poster boy for the abolition of the death penalty," Bradley said. "And they want to make Willingham that poster boy. And they chose poorly, because Willingham is a guilty monster."
State district Judge Charlie Baird will convene an unusual court of inquiry hearing Wednesday after the Innocence Project filed a petition asking him to "restore the reputation" of Willingham and declare he was wrongly convicted. Stacy Kuykendall, who is Willingham's ex-wife and the girls' mother, planned to hold a news conference before the hearing.
Navarro County District Attorney R. Lowell Thompson filed a motion late Monday asking that Baird recuse himself from Wednesday's hearing. Thompson noted that Baird previously ruled on the case as a member of the Court of Criminal Appeals and questioned whether he is impartial, noting he won a "Courage Award" this year from the Texas Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty.
Baird declined to comment.
The Austin American-Statesman reports, "Corsicana DA seeks Baird's recusal in Willingham case," by Steven Kreytak.
State District Judge Charlie Baird's planned inquiry into whether Texas executed an innocent Cameron Todd Willingham in 2004 might not happen today because a prosecutor is seeking Baird's recusal.
Navarro County District Attorney R. Lowell Thompson, whose office successfully prosecuted Willingham in the 1991 deaths of his three young daughters, filed a motion late Monday questioning the impartiality of Baird, who sits in Travis County.
The motion cites several grounds, including that Baird previously participated in the case as a member of the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals in 1995, when the court unanimously ruled to uphold Willingham's capital murder conviction.
The motion also argues that an award Baird received from an anti-death penalty group, reader comments made in online news stories about the hearing and Baird's procedural handling of the case so far have called into question his ability to appear impartial in the case.
Thompson wrote that the law requires Baird to either recuse himself or ask that another judge conduct a hearing on the motion.
Neither Baird nor lawyers for Willingham's family could be reached for comment Tuesday.
Dave Montgomery writes, "District attorney seeks judge's recusal in Willingham court of inquiry," for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram.
Reached by phone late Tuesday afternoon, Baird declined to comment on the motion by District Attorney R. Lowell Thompson of Corsicana but said he would have more to say before the scheduled 1:30 p.m. hearing in his 299th District Court in Travis County. Baird is expected to make a midmorning statement.
"Show up if you want to," he told the Star-Telegram. "I can't tell you what I'm going to do." But he added: "Be here at 10:30 and 1:30."
The motion raised the possibility that the two-day hearing could be postponed while the motion is resolved, although Baird gave no hint of his plans. Former Gov. Mark White, now a Houston attorney who helped petition for the court of inquiry, said other attorneys advised him that the proceeding would likely be delayed.
Baird, who also conducted a court of inquiry that led to the posthumous exoneration of wrongfully convicted inmate Tim Cole of Fort Worth, ordered the court of inquiry last week after reviewing a petition filed Friday by lawyers representing Willingham's relatives.
"DA Asks Willingham Judge to Recuse Himself," is Brandi Grissom's Texas Tribune report.
Fifteen years ago, Judge Charlie Baird was one of the justices on the state’s highest criminal court who reaffirmed Cameron Todd Willingham’s death sentence. Now a state district judge, Baird is scheduled on Wednesday to begin a process that could determine that the conviction — and Willingham’s execution — were mistakes. And the prosecution objects.
Lawyers for Willingham's family are set to take their high-profile fight to exonerate the executed arsonist to a new venue today. They’ve asked Baird to convene a court of inquiry to determine whether Willingham was wrongfully convicted, and whether state officials committed a crime when they executed the Corsicana man despite evidence casting doubt on his guilt. Baird agreed to hold a hearing to determine the need for such a court to investigate the case. But Navarro County District Attorney R. Lowell Thompson, whose office originally convicted Willingham, says Baird's impartiality is tainted by his previous ruling in the case, and his own beliefs about the death penalty. “Therefore he should recuse himself or be disqualified,” Thompson writes in a motion seeking to disqualify Baird. Thompson argues that the hearing should be put on hold until a decision on the motion is made. But the hearing remained scheduled as of late Tuesday.
Whether Baird presides or not, the larger question is whether Willingham’s case represents systemic flaws in the Texas criminal justice system that may have landed countless other alleged arsonists behind bars or even in the death chamber. “The goal is to see if we have the proper procedures to eliminate the prospect that some innocent person would be executed,” says Mark White, former Democratic Texas governor and attorney general who is among several lawyers representing Willingham's survivors.
When Baird dealt with Willingham's case in 1995 — lacking evidence that would be uncovered later — the lawyers' arguments centered on whether the venue was appropriate; on questions about the testimony of jailhouse snitch Johnny Webb, who told jurors that Willingham confessed; and on whether the evidence supported the death penalty in his case. In the days leading up to the court-of-inquiry hearing, Baird says he reviewed the appellate case for Willingham. “You have to make decisions at a time certain, with the evidence before you and the arguments before you, and that’s all in the world you can do,” Baird says. “I still think I was right, based on what issues raised were on appeal.”
Previous courts of inquiry have led to broader policy changes. In the Tim Cole case, the court of inquiry resulted in Perry eventually issuing the first-ever posthumous exoneration. It also spurred lawmakers to create the Timothy Cole Advisory Panel on Wrongful Convictions, which has made recommendations to the Legislature about new laws that could help prevent cases like Cole’s. In the 1990s, lawyers from El Paso launched a court of inquiry to examine whether state agencies were shortchanging communities along the border. No criminal charges came from the case, but state Sen. Eliot Shapleigh, D-El Paso, who was one of the lawyers who worked on the court of inquiry, says the process led to legislative and agency changes that meant more money for mental health, transportation and other public services in border communities. “It is a way to gather evidence on what really happened,” Shapleigh says of courts of inquiry.
The Corsicana Daily Sun carries, "Thompson: Judge should step aside," by Janet Jacobs.
R. Lowell Thompson, Navarro County District Attorney, has filed a motion in a Travis County court to stop Travis County District Judge Charles Baird from hearing a case meant to decide if Cameron Todd Willingham can be declared innocent, six years following Willingham’s execution.
Baird agreed to hear the case and set the date for Wednesday and Thursday of this week.
Thompson’s motion asks Baird to disqualify himself from the case, because the judge is not following proper procedure in the hearing. The motion also questions Baird’s impartiality in the issue.
Baird did not return phone calls Tuesday asking for comment on Thompson’s motion.
However, Baird said last week that any district court in the state could hear this type of case, he stated in an interview with the Corsicana Daily Sun.
“It’s more a question about venue,” Baird said at the time. “Every district court would have the potential to decide a case like this. Travis County was the appropriate venue here.”
Baird defended the Austin location because the fire marshal’s office supposedly committed official oppression by filing false or misleading reports, and because the governor’s office didn’t grant clemency.
David Grann's September 2009 New Yorker article is noted here. Steve Mills and Maurice Possley first reported on the case in a 2004 Chicago Tribune series on junk science. The December 9, 2004 report was titled,"Man executed on disproved forensics."
The Innocence Project has a Todd Willingham resource page which provides a concise overview of the Willingham case with links to all relevant documents.