Willingham Case Goes Back to Court

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Update (2:35 p.m.): Not much happened at today’s hearing. Judge Charlie Baird postponed the Willingham court of inquiry until he rules on a motion filed by the Navarro County DA asking Baird to recuse himself from the case. The proceedings will reconvene next Thursday, Oct. 14. 

Posted earlier: Six years after his death, Cameron Todd Willingham may go back on trial this afternoon in an Austin courtroom.

OK, it’s not a trial exactly. But it could have that feel. Lawyers for the Willingham family and the New York-based Innocence Project filed a motion in district court in Austin, asking Judge Charlie Baird to determine if the State of Texas wrongly executed Willingham for starting the 1991 house fire that killed his three children.

As you probably know, the arson evidence used to convict Willingham—and hundreds of other defendants—was outdated and flawed. (If you don’t know about this case, read this story and then this one.) Willingham was executed in 2004.

The proceedings today are known as a court of inquiry. But lawyers can put witnesses on the stand and offer evidence, so it potentially could become a Willingham “re-trial.” If Baird were to rule that Willingham was wrongly convicted, it would mark the first official conclusion that an American state had executed an innocent man. (You can read the Willingham family’s petition here.)

Yesterday the DA in Navarro County, where Willingham was convicted, asked Judge Baird to recuse himself because he ruled on one of Willingham’s appeals while a member of the Court of Criminal Appeals 15 years ago. The Statesman and Grits have more about that. Baird also presided over the hearing in the Tim Cole exoneration. What’s different this time is the lack of DNA evidence.

This hearing is about much more than Willingham. As I’ve written in this space many times, there are potentially hundreds of people wrongly convicted of arson in Texas prisons alone. Willingham’s case is now more about their fates than his.

I’ll be at the hearing this afternoon—if it happens—and will post updates in this space and on Twitter (@ContrarianDave).

Dave Mann has been with the Observer since 2003. Before that, he worked as a reporter in Fort Worth and Washington, D.C. He was born and raised in Philadelphia. He thinks border collies are the world’s greatest dogs, and believes in the nourishing powers of pickup basketball.