DALLAS (AP) - A Texas appeals court halted an inquiry Tuesday into whether a man convicted of arson was wrongly executed, saying the presiding judge acted improperly by not ruling on a motion for his recusal.
In a 2-1 decision, the Third Texas Court of Appeals ruled that Judge Charlie Baird abused his discretion by not recusing himself or referring a motion for his recusal to another judge.
Baird presided over an October hearing into whether Cameron Willingham was wrongly executed for setting a 1991 fire that killed his three daughters. Although Willingham was executed in 2004, many fire experts now say the blaze was accidental.
Some of Willingham's surviving relatives and attorneys from the Innocence Project are trying to clear Willingham's name and get the state to acknowledge he was wrongly executed.
Navarro County District Attorney R. Lowell Thompson, whose office convicted Willingham in 1992, sought to stop the hearing after Baird declined to recuse himself. Thompson questioned Baird's impartiality, noting he received an award this year from the Texas Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty.
But Baird refused to rule on the recusal motion in October, saying Thompson didn't have standing in the case. Thompson successfully won an emergency stay the same day, barring Baird from issuing an opinion on whether Willingham was wrongly convicted.
The ruling Tuesday orders Baird to either recuse himself or refer the recusal motion to another judge before the hearing into Willingham's guilt or innocence can continue.
Williamson County District Attorney John Bradley, who leads a forensic science panel examining whether fire investigators in the Willingham case were negligent, said the appeals court ruling is an unmistakable rebuke of Baird.
The majority opinion clearly informs Judge Baird that he was wrong to ignore the request for a recusal hearing, Bradley said. So at a minimum, he has to stop the proceeding and decide whether or not he is a biased judge.
Barry Scheck, the co-director of the New York-based Innocence Project, did not immediately return a message left by The Associated Press.