A Texas judge who reviewed the controversial 2004 execution of Cameron Todd Willingham planned to posthumously exonerate the father who was put to death for killing his three daughters in a house fire.
Scientific experts who debunked the arson evidence used against Willingham at his 1992 trial and a jailhouse witness who recanted his shaky testimony convinced District Court Judge Charlie Baird in 2010 that "Texas wrongfully convicted" him. But Baird's order clearing Willingham's name never became official, because a higher court halted the posthumous inquiry while it considered whether the judge had authority to examine the capital case.
While waiting for permission to finish the case from the Third Court of Appeals, Baird put together the document that "orders the exoneration of Cameron Todd Willingham for murdering his three daughters," because of "overwhelming, credible and reliable evidence" presented during a one-day hearing in Austin in October 2010.
"You can't do anything for Willingham except clear his name," Baird told The Huffington Post. "When they tried Willingham, I'm convinced that everyone worked in good faith. The problem is that up until the execution, everything had changed so dramatically that you realized the science relied upon at trial was not reliable enough to take a man's life."
Baird's intended order never came to light because the court of appeals criticized his handling of the case and prevented him from resuming work on it before he left the bench at the end of 2010 after choosing not to seek re-election. No one asked him for it after the court of appeals blocked him, he said.
Baird, now an attorney in private practice, said he was moved to share the document with HuffPost after reading about Carlos DeLuna, a Texan who a Columbia University team said this week may have been wrongly executed in 1989.
The 18-page unissued order closely examined the arson evidence presented during the trial, including claims that investigators found patterns on the floor where an accelerant was poured and traces of it on the porch. But Baird said he was persuaded by other experts that the initial investigative techniques were out of date. The judge faulted Gov. Rick Perry and the state Court of Criminal Appeals, because they "ignored" exonerating evidence in 2004.
Baird, a Democrat, is now running for district attorney in Travis County, which includes Austin. The Willingham opinion is undated. Baird said he wrote it in the weeks after the Oct. 14, 2010, hearing. District court planner Kasey Hoke and court administrator Debra Hale told HuffPost they remember him preparing it in late 2010.
With Baird pushed to the sidelines that year, the fire that tore through Willingham home in Corsicana on Dec. 23, 1991, remained on the books as a triple homicide. Willingham escaped the burning house, but his three daughters -- a 2-year-old and 1-year-old twins -- were trapped inside and died from smoke inhalation. (His wife was out running errands for Christmas.)
Investigators concluded the blaze had been deliberately set with an accelerant. Two weeks after the fire, they arrested Willingham, a 23-year-old high school dropout with a rap sheet that included shoplifting and driving under the influence.
Willingham, maintaining his innocence, turned down a plea deal offering him life behind bars. At his August 1992 trial, the two fire investigators testified for the prosecution that Willingham torched his own home. The prosecution also called a jailhouse snitch, Johnny Webb, to the stand. Webb claimed that Willingham admitted in jail after his arrest that he killed his children. The jury convicted him in about an hour.
State and federal courts upheld Willingham's conviction, and in 2003 the U.S. Supreme Court declined to get involved. During the appeals process, Baird was on the Circuit Court of Appeals that twice ruled against Willingham.
But doubts about Willingham's guilt emerged. In 2000, Webb recanted his testimony. Forensic science had evolved since his trial, too. In 2004, Gerald Hurst, a chemist, released a report days before Willingham's execution that said the testimony of the fire investigators was wrong and that the fire was accidental. The report was rushed to Gov. Perry, but he denied a request for a reprieve, allowing the state to put Willingham to death by lethal injection on Feb. 17, 2004.
Baird's proposed order -- which drew upon Hurst's report and the findings of other experienced arson investigators -- came as a welcome surprise to Willingham's relatives and attorneys, who continue to believe he was innocent.
"I'm very thankful he did this," said Eugenia Willingham, Todd Willingham's stepmother. "I'm sure this will have a good impact for Todd. I raised that boy and I believed him," Willingham told HuffPost. "He adored those children. I never thought he could have done that."
The fire occurred in Navarro County, but lawyers for Willingham's family brought the case to Baird under a provision of the Texas Constitution that says all courts are open for people claiming harm to their reputation. Using the same arcane provision, Baird issued the state's first posthumous exoneration in 2009 to Timothy Cole, who died in prison for a rape he didn't commit.
R. Lowell Thompson, Navarro County's district attorney, sought to derail the inquiry into Willingham, who was prosecuted by a predecessor. The prosecutor filed the petition with the court of appeals that froze Baird's investigation and is critical of the former judge for writing the proposed order.
"It's very surprising to me that he would enter some sort of opinion without hearing all the evidence, because none was presented by the state," Thompson told HuffPost.
Baird said Thompson had the chance to argue his side, but left the court. Thompson said he departed because he wanted to get the court of appeals to step in immediately.
"I was doing my job and he thought he was doing the right thing," said Thompson. "To me, it looked like he wasn't applying the law."
Some of the harshest criticism in Baird's writing is directed at Perry. The governor's role in refusing to postpone Willingham's execution was closely examined by The Huffington Post during his presidential campaign.
"By 2004 there was no doubt that every single indication of arson had been debunked by the scientific community," Baird wrote. "This fact was staring Governor Perry in the face; nevertheless, he refused to grant a reprieve."
Perry has stood by the decision when questioned previously about Willingham. His office didn't flinch from the latest criticism.
"Nothing the Austin court could have done would change the fact that Todd Willingham was convicted and sentenced to death by a jury of his peers for murdering his three daughters," said a statement from his spokeswoman Lucy Nashed. "He had full access to every level of the appeals process, and his conviction was reviewed and upheld by multiple levels of state and federal courts. ... The governor reviewed all of the facts of the case and agreed with the jury, and state and federal courts that Willingham was guilty."
With Baird's opinion revealed, lawyers for Willingham's family members continue pushing for a pardon that would clear his name. Last year, the Texas Forensic Science Commission issued a report saying the evidence from the fire investigators was no longer valid.
"It's an awful shame that this opinion was sitting in his desk gathering dust and nobody could see it," said Barry Scheck, a lawyer from the Innocence Project working for Willingham's relatives. "This opinion will stand the test of time, because it faces the facts."
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