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AFTERWORD Zen and the Art of Exoneration In 1986 a fire in Iraan, a West Texas town of about 1,000, took the lives of two women in a house where Ernest Willis had been living. The former oilfield worker was accused of setting the fire and in 1987 was convicted of arson-murder. During the trial then Pecos County District Attorney J.W. Johnson repeatedly pointed to Willis and referred to his blank expression as “satanic”a “cold fish eye” stare. Years later, Judge M. Brock Jones, Jr., the state district court judge who had presided over the trial, recommended that the conviction be set aside after hearing evidence that Willis had involuntarily received large doses of powerful anti-psychotic drugs while in jail. The judge also determined that the state had withheld evidencea psychologist’s report indicating that Willis was not a danger to societyand that he had received ineffective counsel at the trial and sentencing. In December 2000, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals rejected the judge’s findings and Willis’ team of appellate attorneys began seeking relief in federal court. In August, Judge Royal Furgeson of Federal District Court in the Western District of Texas, found that Willis’ trial and sentencing had been unconstitutional and issued an order requiring that the state either retry Willis or release him. Ori White, the current district attorney for Pecos County, later determined that “the facts in this case exonerate Mr. Willis.” On the afternoon of October 6, Ernest Willis, now 59, was released from prison after spending 17 years on death row for a crime he did not commit. He was the eighth inmate to be released from Texas death row since the death penalty was reinstated in 1976. Since the early ’90s, the New York law firm of Lathan & Watkins has represented Willis on a pro bono basis in his appeals. Robert C. Owen, who teaches at the University of Texas Law School and supervises students in the Capital Punishment Clinic, formally joined the team in December 2000, although he had met Willis and become familiar with his case years before. As Owen explains, his experience with Ernest WillisErnieis unique. Its the only time in nearly 15 years of death-penalty work that one of his clients was exonerated and set free. On Tuesday, October 5, there was a flurry of phone calls between Owen, the New York lawyers, and prison officials. Owen and his New York colleagues concluded that Willis wouldn’t be released until Thursday at the earliest. But the next day, at 11 a.m., he was told that his client would be released that afternoon. He raced to Huntsville to see it happen. got a big fat speeding ticket in I just banging my head against Bryan trying to get to Huntsville before Ernie was released. I was the steering wheel while the cop walked up to the window. For a moment I thought, “I’ll tell him. I’ll tell him I’m racing to get an innocent man out of prison, and he’ll lead me there with his sirens going.” I finally got there sometime between three and four. They had released Ernie about an hour earlier. My client and his wife had gone out to buy clothes. The clothes that they gave him when they released him were spectacularly ill-fitting. We had managed to get the word out to a few reporters, and when he walked out of prison he spent a couple of minutes answering questions. My understanding from Ernie was that he had to hold up his pants with one hand during the interview that he gave because they were so poorly sized. And that mortified him. When we finally met up, there in the parking lot of Chili’s in Huntsville, I just went to pieces. I hadn’t realized how much it would over Ernie was asked why it took so long for things to come together for his release, and he said, “Oh, when Texas has you, they don’t want to let you go:’ whelm me to see him in person and free. And then they followed us to Houston through a driving rainstorm; I was afraid the whole way that we would lose them and we’d be circling on the freeway trying to find them. We checked in at the hotel and on our way into the lobby, a young man tapped Ernie on the shoulder and said, “Hey man, aren’t you that guy that just got out of death row? I saw you on the news.” I was really surprised at how fast news like that travels and that he would be an instant celebrity. Ernie was totally gracious about it. He said, “Yeah, that was me. Thanks for the kind wishes!’ And the guy said, “Yeah man, enjoy your freedoms’ Ernie told me he hadn’t slept in about 72 hoursbasically since he got word that the wheels were in motion to get him out. We told him that we would have a press conference the next day, and he was really anxious about how he would do, which in retrospect is hard to understand. It wasn’t just that he fielded questions and answered them with degree of calmness and self-possession. He was eloquent. He was funny. He was asked why it took so long for things to come together for his release, and 11/5/04 THE TEXAS OBSERVER 29