Judge postpones hearing into Willingham's execution

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by JASON WHITELY

Bio | Email | Follow: @jasonwhitely

WFAA

Posted on October 6, 2010 at 5:20 PM

Updated Wednesday, Oct 6 at 7:52 PM

AUSTIN – Judge Charles Baird postponed a petition to create a court of inquiry into the Todd Willingham execution case as the late convict’s legal team considers how to respond to a motion to disqualify the judge from heading future proceedings.

Willingham’s relatives, their attorneys and representatives of the Innocence Project petitioned Baird to begin the process of opening the rare legal forum in an effort to clear Willingham’s reputation and in the hopes of getting him posthumously exonerated.
 
But, only a single attorney, Gerald Goldstein, represented the Willingham family at the Wednesday hearing.
 
Navarro County District Attorney Lowell Thompson drove down from Corsicana after filing the motion asking Baird to recuse himself. He did not say whether it was right or wrong to conduct a court of inquiry if one is eventually granted.
 
Thompson opposes Baird leading the proceedings since he previously heard the Willingham case when he was a justice on the Court of Criminal Appeals. Thompson also questioned the judge’s impartiality since he recently won an award from an anti-death penalty group.
 
Baird gave Goldstein a week to prepare a response to Thompson’s motion trying to kick him off the case. The judge rescheduled the hearing for 1:30 p.m. on October 14.
 
Willingham was convicted of arson for the house fire that killed his three daughters in 1991. The Corsicana man was executed five years ago. Since then, the integrity and validity of the evidence used against him at trial has been questioned.
 
Stacy Kuykendall, Willingham’s ex-wife and mother of the three girls who died in the fire, made a rare and unusual appearance outside the court house several hours before the hearing was to begin.
 
“I am here today to stand up one last time on behalf of my daughters,” she told reporters while fighting back tears.
 
She said Willingham, who always maintained his innocence, actually confessed to her before his execution. Still, Kuykendall has avoided talking about the case publicly.
 
“My ex-husband murdered my daughters, and just before he was executed he told me he did it," she said. "He stood and watched while their tiny bodies burned."
 
She did not attend the hearing.
 
Willingham’s family is simultaneously asking the Texas Forensic Science Commission to investigate the arson evidence used against him at trial. Unlike a court of inquiry, though, the commission, will not determine guilt or innocence.
 
The convict’s supporters claim that arson testimony used to help convict Willingham was flawed, outdated and incorrect.
 
In its petition for a court of inquiry, The Innocence Project said it found nine other arson experts who debunked the testimony in Willingham’s testimony.
 
But, the State Fire Marshal’s Office still stands by the testimony from Navarro County officials. Others have pointed out that Willingham lost every single appeal.
 
Though Baird invited them all, neither the state fire marshal nor the state prosecuting attorney nor the governor’s office sent representatives to appear Wednesday afternoon.
 
A court of inquiry, a rare legal forum, is an attempt to get a state official to acknowledge for the first time that Willingham was wrongfully convicted, insiders told News 8.
 
Baird would have to determine whether the Willingham case has enough merit to push up to the presiding judge in Travis County. If so, the judge would then appoint another judge to convene a court of inquiry.

Email: jwhitely@wfaa.com

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