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Monday, November 30, 2009

Enter Drawing to Win a Phone Call from Sister Helen Prejean

Texas Moratorium Network is having a drawing for someone to win a phone call from Sister Helen Prejean, author of "Dead Man Walking" and one of the world's leading advocates for abolishing the death penalty. Invite your friends to become a fan of the Texas Moratorium Network Facebook page and to enter the drawing, which will be held on December 15. It is free to enter.

Click here to enter the drawing.

The second place prize is a signed copy of the book "Mortal Justice: A True Story of Murder and Vindication" by Jeanette Popp and Wanda Evans, which tells the story of Jeanette's daughter Nancy's murder, the wrongful conviction of two innocent men Chris Ochoa and Richard Danziger, their eventual exoneration, the subsequent conviction of the real killer, and Jeanette's long activism against the death penalty, including a jailhouse meeting with the real killer and her successful efforts to prevent him from being sentenced to death.

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Thursday, November 19, 2009

Governor Perry Continues to Play Politics with Death Penalty Issue By Refusing to Accept Recommendation of BPP for Clemency for Robert Thompson

"Rick Perry continues to play politics with the death penalty. He should have accepted the recommendation of the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles to commute the death sentence of Robert Thompson. It would not surprise me if Rick Perry one day replaces the members of the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles who voted in favor of clemency for Thompson, just like he replaced his own appointees on the Texas Forensic Science Commission in the midst of their investigation into the Todd Willingham case. Rick Perry is using the death penalty issue to endear himself to right-wing voters in the upcoming Republican primary, but his actions do not reflect the priorities of mainstream Texans who are increasingly concerned about the fairness of the Texas death penalty system", said Scott Cobb of Texas Moratorium Network.

Cobb continued, "In an Orwellian application of language repurposing, Governor Rick Perry and many of his supporters would like the public to believe that people sentenced to death under the Law of Parties are "killers", but a "killer" is "one who kills", not "one whose accomplice killed". People such as Jeff Wood and Kenneth Foster, Jr, are not killers. They never killed anyone and in a fair system of justice, they should never have received death sentences".

There is widespread support in Texas for ending the practice of sentencing people to death under the law of parties. In the last session of the Texas Legislature, the Texas House of Representatives passed a bill (HB 2267 by Terri Hodge) that would have banned executions of people convicted solely under the Law of Parties. The Law of Parties provision of HB 2267 was taken out of the bill in the Senate Criminal Justice Committee after Governor Perry threatened to veto it if the bill was sent to him in the same form that it had passed the House. The revised version, which would have only required separate trials for co-defendants in capital trials, then died in the Senate when it did not come up for a vote on the floor before the deadline.

Two family members of a person on death row who was sentenced to death under the Law of Parties issued statements regarding Rick Perry's refusal to accept the recommendation of clemency for Robert Thompson. Jeff Wood remains on death row in Texas after receiving a stay in 2008 from a federal judge.

Terri Been, whose brother Jeff Wood is on Texas death row convicted under the Law of Parties said "I must say that I was surprised to hear that the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles grew a conscious and voted in favor of clemency for Robert Thompson, since they unanimously voted for the execution of my brother, Jeff Wood, who was also convicted under the law of parties despite the fact that he is factually innocent of murder. However, I was not surprised to hear Perry didn’t jump on board the clemency train as the man has no sense of true justice. After all, it was Perry who killed House Bill 2267, which would have ended the death penalty as a sentencing option for those who never committed murder. It is a very sad day, and I grieve not only for Robert Thompson, his family and for the family of the victim killed by Thompson's accomplice, but I grieve for the lack of hope that I feel because of Governor Perry’s latest decision. To kill is wrong, but to kill someone who was not convicted of actually killing anyone is INJUSTICE in the simplest form".

Gavin Been, nephew of Jeff Wood and president of Kids Against the Death Penalty said, "KADP members mourn for Robert Thompson and for the injustice taking place in Texas today. Governor Perry strikes again by condemning another person to death who is factually innocent of murder, and we are appalled that our fellow citizens continue to turn a blind eye to Perry’s mismanagement of power. We know that Texans favor “tough on crime” laws, but we were taught that laws and punishment were supposed to be equal and fair. How is it fair that people like, Jeff Wood, or in this case Robert Thompson, who are factually innocent of murder, should face execution while there are REPEAT offenders of murder and rape in general population, who have the right to be paroled, and are given a second chance? To sentence a person to death who never committed a murder is NOT justice; it is murder itself, and Mr. Perry should be ashamed of himself for allowing another murder to take place".

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Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Breaking News: Board of Pardons and Paroles Recommends that Governor Perry Commutes Death Sentence of Robert Thompson

Call the Governor and leave a voice message at 512 463 1782 or email him through his website at http://governor.state.tx.us/contact. Urge him to accept the recommendation of the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles to grant Robert Thompson clemency and commute his sentence to life. The execution is currently scheduled for Thursday, November 19.


From the Houston Chronicle:

The state pardons board today recommended that Houston killer Robert Thompson's scheduled Thursday execution be commuted to life in prison after his lawyer successfully argued that he was not the triggerman in a December 1996 convenience store robbery-murder.

Gov. Rick Perry, who has only once in his tenure as chief executive voluntarily commuted a death sentence, was expected to rule on the case tonight or tomorrow.

“I'm too scared to be optimistic,” said Thompson's attorney Pat McCann, “but Perry has been receptive to law of parties cases.”

Thompson was sentenced to death in a law of parties case stemming from the slaying of Mansoor Rahim in a Dec. 5, 1996, robbery of a Braeswood Boulevard convenience store. Thompson's partner in the crime, Sammy Butler, fired the fatal shot, but was sentenced only to life in prison.

Under the state's law of parties, all participants in a crime are held fully responsible and can be assessed the death penalty.

Perry's office did not immediately respond to queries about when the governor might decide the case, but McCann said the governor's legal counsel advised him a decision likely would come tonight or tomorrow.

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Attorneys File motion Asking Court of Criminal Appeals Judge Sharon Keller be recused from any participation in Stay Request of Danielle Simpson

From the Palestine Texas Herald Press:

Late Tuesday afternoon, Simpson's attorneys David R. Dow and Katherine C. Black filed a postconviction writ of habeas corpus; a motion for a stay of execution; and a motion asking Court of Criminal Appeals Judge Sharon Keller be recused from any participation in the case.

Dow and Black are attorneys for the Texas Defender Service and their motion on Simpson's behalf alleges the judge "has made disparaging statements about TDS" in the past, which they say compromises "her ability to rule impartially in a case involving a party represented by the TDS."
From the Houston Chronicle:
A condemned prisoner who volunteered for execution but in recent weeks changed his mind hoped a court would spare him from a trip to the Texas death chamber Wednesday evening.

Danielle Simpson, 30, was set to die for the abduction-slaying of an 84-year-old east Texas woman who was weighted down with a cinder block and thrown into a river.
Simpson this year won approval from a federal court that he was competent to decide to drop his appeals. Then he reversed himself and allowed lawyers to try to save him from lethal injection.

He'd be the 22nd Texas prisoner to die this year.

Simpson told The Associated Press earlier this month from death row he was innocent, it wasn't his choice to volunteer for execution and Texas prisons were "pitiful."

He was condemned for the murder of Geraldine Davidson, a former school teacher and church organist abducted nearly 10 years ago during a burglary of her home in Palestine, about 100 miles southeast of Dallas.

Attorneys representing him argued to the federal courts Simpson is mentally impaired, incapable of deciding whether to drop his appeals and offered his repeated reversals as proof.

They also wanted permission to appeal a lower court's determination that Simpson is not mentally impaired and challenged the elimination of two black people from consideration to serve on Simpson's trial jury. Simpson is black. There were no blacks on the jury that convicted him and decided he should be put to death.
Simpson earlier sent a federal court a handwritten motion in which he said he was "tired of being in a institution that's unjust, degrading, and corrupted" and was ready to die.

A federal judge found Simpson had "a mental disease, disorder or defect" but was able to understand his legal position and competent to choose to die.

Don't let Texas execute someone without the Governor receiving phone calls or emails protesting the execution. In the past, we have done public information requests and discovered that for some executions, very few people call to protest, so it is important to call every time. They keep a tally. Call the Governor and leave a voice message at 512 463 1782 or email him through his website at http://governor.state.tx.us/contact.

Members of various groups, including Texas Moratorium Network, Students Against the Death Penalty, Campaign to the End the Death Penalty, Kids Against the Death Penalty and the Texas Death Penalty Abolition Movement participate in vigils and protests on the day of each execution in Texas. The protests are held in various cities, including Huntsville and Austin. The protest in Austin is at 5:30 pm on the sidewalk in front of the Texas Capitol facing Congress Avenue at 11th Street.

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Protest today's scheduled execution in Texas of Danielle Simpson

Don't let Texas execute someone without the Governor receiving phone calls or emails protesting the execution. In the past, we have done public information requests and discovered that for some executions, very few people call to protest, so it is important to call every time. They keep a tally. Call the Governor and leave a voice message at 512 463 1782 or email him through his website at http://governor.state.tx.us/contact.

From the Houston Chronicle:

A condemned prisoner who volunteered for execution but in recent weeks changed his mind hoped a court would spare him from a trip to the Texas death chamber Wednesday evening.

Danielle Simpson, 30, was set to die for the abduction-slaying of an 84-year-old east Texas woman who was weighted down with a cinder block and thrown into a river.
Simpson this year won approval from a federal court that he was competent to decide to drop his appeals. Then he reversed himself and allowed lawyers to try to save him from lethal injection.

He'd be the 22nd Texas prisoner to die this year.

Simpson told The Associated Press earlier this month from death row he was innocent, it wasn't his choice to volunteer for execution and Texas prisons were "pitiful."

He was condemned for the murder of Geraldine Davidson, a former school teacher and church organist abducted nearly 10 years ago during a burglary of her home in Palestine, about 100 miles southeast of Dallas.

Attorneys representing him argued to the federal courts Simpson is mentally impaired, incapable of deciding whether to drop his appeals and offered his repeated reversals as proof.

They also wanted permission to appeal a lower court's determination that Simpson is not mentally impaired and challenged the elimination of two black people from consideration to serve on Simpson's trial jury. Simpson is black. There were no blacks on the jury that convicted him and decided he should be put to death.
Simpson earlier sent a federal court a handwritten motion in which he said he was "tired of being in a institution that's unjust, degrading, and corrupted" and was ready to die.

A federal judge found Simpson had "a mental disease, disorder or defect" but was able to understand his legal position and competent to choose to die.

Members of various groups, including Texas Moratorium Network, Students Against the Death Penalty, Campaign to the End the Death Penalty, Kids Against the Death Penalty and the Texas Death Penalty Abolition Movement participate in vigils and protests on the day of each execution in Texas. The protests are held in various cities, including Huntsville and Austin. The protest in Austin is at 5:30 pm on the sidewalk in front of the Texas Capitol facing Congress Avenue at 11th Street.

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Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Today's scheduled execution of Gerald Eldridge has been stayed

From the Houston Chronicle:
Gerald Eldridge had eaten most of his final meal of pancakes, peanut butter, baked potato and chocolate milk this afternoon when a Houston federal court stayed his execution -- just two hours before he was to be put to death.

Eldridge, 45, had been condemned for the January 1993 murders of his ex-girlfriend Cynthia Bogany, 28, and her 9-year-old daughter, Chirrisa.

Prison spokesman Jason Clark said Eldridge was talking on the telephone with a relative when he was told of the stay.

"He became very emotional," Clark said. Prison authorities were preparing to return him to death row in nearby Livingston.

U.S. District Judge Lee Rosenthal granted Eldridge a 90-day stay and authorized expenditure of $7,500 for further psychiatric examinations.

Eldridge’s attorney, Lee Wilson of Houston, had argued in his appeal that the killer might be seriously mentally ill and incompetent to be executed. Under state law, a person must understand that he will be executed and why before he legally can be put to death.



Gerald Cornelius Eldridge, who is mentally ill and has an IQ of 72, was scheduled for execution today but received a stay. Eldridge, 45, was sentenced to death for the 1993 shooting deaths of his former girlfriend, Cynthia Bogany and her nine-year old daughter Chirissa in Houston.



The second is a man named Danielle Simpson, sentenced to death for the murder of 84-year old Geraldine Davidson.



On Thursday, Robert Thompson is scheduled for execution. He was convicted and sentenced to death under the Law of Parties, even though it was his accomplice who fired the bullet that killed the victim. The accomplice was sentenced to life.

Call Governor Perry at 512 463 1782 to protest these executions or contact Perry by email through his website.

Members of various groups, including Texas Moratorium Network, Students Against the Death Penalty, Campaign to the End the Death Penalty, Kids Against the Death Penalty and the Texas Death Penalty Abolition Movement participate in vigils and protests on the day of each execution in Texas. The protests are held in various cities, including Huntsville and Austin. The protest in Austin is at 5:30 pm on the sidewalk in front of the Texas Capitol facing Congress Avenue at 11th Street.

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Three Executions in Three Days in Texas, Starting Today

Texas is set to execute three people in three days starting today, November 17.



The first is Gerald Cornelius Eldridge, who is mentally ill and has an IQ of 72. Eldridge, 45, was sentenced to death for the 1993 shooting deaths of his former girlfriend, Cynthia Bogany and her nine-year old daughter Chirissa in Houston.



The second is a man named Danielle Simpson, sentenced to death for the murder of 84-year old Geraldine Davidson.



On Thursday, Robert Thompson is scheduled for execution. He was convicted and sentenced to death under the Law of Parties, even though it was his accomplice who fired the bullet that killed the victim. The accomplice was sentenced to life.

Call Governor Perry at 512 463 1782 to protest these executions or contact Perry by email through his website.

Members of various groups, including Texas Moratorium Network, Students Against the Death Penalty, Campaign to the End the Death Penalty, Kids Against the Death Penalty and the Texas Death Penalty Abolition Movement participate in vigils and protests on the day of each execution in Texas. The protests are held in various cities, including Huntsville and Austin. The protest in Austin is at 5:30 pm on the sidewalk in front of the Texas Capitol facing Congress Avenue at 11th Street.

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Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Texas Today Executed 21st Person in 2009, 205th Under Governor Rick Perry and 444th Since 1982

Yosvanis "El Cubano" Valle, 34, was executed Tuesday, November 10, 2009 in Huntsville, Texas. He was the 21st person executed in Texas in 2009, the 205th executed since Rick Perry became governor and the 444th executed in Texas since 1982.

There are three more executions scheduled in Texas next week and one in December.

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21st Execution of 2009 Today in Texas

Cuban native Yosvanis Valle, 34, is set for lethal injection this evening in Huntsville for Junco’s robbery and slaying. He would become the 21st prisoner executed this year in Texas.

The U.S. Supreme Court refused to review Valle’s case this year. His appeals exhausted, his lawyers lost a petition last week to the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles asking that Valle’s death sentence be commuted to life in prison.

"Nothing else remains for us to do," attorney Roland Moore said.


Call Governor Perry at 512 463 1782 to protest this execution or contact Perry by email through his website.

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John Bradley's Use of Misinformation to Push His Political Agenda

Today, John Bradley, the new chair of the Texas Forensic Science Commission, is scheduled to testify to the Senate Committee on Criminal Justice. The question is whether Bradley's testimony to the committee or any comments he gives to the media can be trusted. Based on the statements he gave to the media during the last session of the Texas Legislature regarding the Law of Parties bill, Bradley seems to be comfortable using hyperbole if not outright propaganda-like misinformation to push his own political agenda.

In the last session of the Texas Legislature, the Texas House of Representatives passed a bill (HB 2267) that would have banned executions of people convicted solely under the Law of Parties. The Law of Parties provision of HB 2267 was taken out of the bill in the Senate Criminal Justice Committee after Governor Perry threatened to veto it if the bill was sent to him in the same form that it had passed the House. The revised version, which would have only required separate trials for co-defendants in capital trials, then died in the Senate when it did not come up for a vote on the floor before the deadline.

The reason for TMN's concern was a quote in the Austin American Statesman from Williamson County Attorney John Bradley. He said in the Austin American-Statesman: "To exempt all defendants in capital cases because they didn't pull the trigger "is irrational," said Williamson County District Attorney John Bradley. "Under that reasoning, Hitler, Osama bin Laden and Charles Manson could never get the death penalty. You have to look at the facts of each case ... whether their participation merits holding them culpable".

The problem with Bradley's comments is that people like Hitler, Manson and Osama bin Laden would not have been prosecuted under Section 7.02(b) of Texas' Law of Parties, which is the section that would have been affected by HB 2267. Furthermore, for those people who are and would continue to be prosecuted under section 7.02 (b) (again not Hitler, Manson or bin Laden), HB 2267 would still have held them culpable, it just would have limited the maximum punishment for non-killers convicted solely under that section to life in prison without parole.

HB 2267 said

A defendant who is found guilty in a capital felony case only as a party under Section 7.02(b), Penal Code, may not be sentenced to death, and the state may not seek the death penalty in any case in which the defendant's liability is based solely on that section.

Bradley's statement was one of the most absurd, irresponsible comments by an elected legal professional trying to justify a political agenda that we have ever heard.

The Law of Parties in section 7.02 (b) says "If, in the attempt to carry out a conspiracy to commit one felony, another felony is committed by one of the conspirators, all conspirators are guilty of the felony actually committed, though having no intent to commit it, if the offense was committed in furtherance of the unlawful purpose and was one that should have been anticipated as a result of the carrying out of the conspiracy".

That section, together with Article 37.0711 of the Code of Criminal Procedure, allows the state to prosecute and sentence to death people who have no intent to kill and who in fact do not kill anyone, people like Kenneth Foster, Jr and Jeff Wood.

Section 7.02 (b) would not have applied to Hitler, Manson or bin Laden because those three did not conspire to commit one felony such as robbery and then someone was killed during the course of the robbery. Manson, Hitler and bin Laden conspired to commit murder, so they could have been prosecuted under other sections of the Law of Parties statute that would have remained unchanged by HB 2267. In fact, section 7.02 would have also remained unchanged under HB 2267, so people could still have been convicted under that section. They just would have received life without parole instead of death.

Law of Parties cases are very rare. There have been only 3 Law of Parties executions in Texas out of the total of 443 executions, which is less than one percent.

"Misinformation given out by an elected county attorney like John Bradley to push his political agenda is appalling. Bradley's past propaganda-like misinformation regarding the Law of Parties brings the reliability and trustworthiness of his testimony in today's hearing into question. The people of Texas should be concerned whether Bradley can be trusted to conduct an unbiased investigation into the scientific validity of the arson investigation and analysis methods used by prosecutors to convict and execute Todd Willingham", said Scott Cobb of Texas Moratorium Network.

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CNN: Texas resists family's effort to clear executed man's name

By Matt Smith, CNN (Read story at CNN)
November 9, 2009 10:03 p.m. EST
Eugenia Willingham shows photographs of her lost grandchildren and the stepson who was executed.
Eugenia Willingham shows photographs of her lost grandchildren and the stepson who was executed.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Todd Willingham was executed by lethal injection in Texas in February, 2004
  • To the end, he denied setting the fire that killed his wife and kids
  • His other relatives are fighting to clear his name
  • Case creates controversy as governor resists and arson experts are challenged

Ardmore, Oklahoma (CNN) -- Cameron Todd Willingham's family here in Oklahoma never believed he set the fire that killed his three daughters.

"We could not even imagine it," his cousin, Patricia Cox, recounted recently. "That was completely ludicrous to us."

But 16 days after the fire, Willingham was arrested. And within a year, he was on death row. On February 17, 2004, he was strapped to a gurney in a Texas prison and given a lethal injection, proclaiming his innocence to the end.

The story of how Willingham -- Todd, to his family -- went from a home on a shady street in Ardmore to the death chamber is a tale of science and skull tattoos, of last-minute hopes raised and dashed. It is a story wrapped up in allegations that the governor who let the execution go forward is now trying to derail an investigation into whether Texas put an innocent man to death.

And in Ardmore, where Willingham's baby shoes still sit on a desk in the house where he grew up, the family that fought to save his life is still trying to clear his name.

"It's not over," Cox's sister, Judy Cavnar, said. "This is a long way from being over."

This is a long way from being over
--Judy Cavnar

The fire started about 10 a.m. on December 23, 1991. Willingham, then 23, was asleep in the wood-frame home in Corsiana, Texas, that he shared with his wife and children. Stacy had gone out to buy presents for 2-year-old Amber Kuykendall and the 1-year-old twins, Karmon and Kameron Willingham.

Money was tight

Times were tough for the couple. Todd, who'd worked as a mechanic, at an auto-parts store and for a glass company, was unemployed and the couple was behind on bills.

Willingham told investigators that Amber woke him up when the fire broke out, and he told her to get out of the house. He said he then crawled on the floor into the children's room to find the twins, but failed.

Christmas was spent making funeral arrangements. Stacy's family blamed Todd for the children's deaths "because he couldn't get them out," said his stepmother, Eugenia Willingham. "There was so much friction in the air."

People in Corsicana took up a collection to help the family. Donations helped pay for gravestones and a plot in an old cemetery downtown. But to police, the grieving father was starting to look like a murderer.

He told different stories about how he escaped the fire. He said he thought Amber was in the children's room, which had a baby gate at the door, but her body was found on his and Stacy's bed. His injuries didn't match what he told investigators about his efforts to rescue the girls. Witnesses at the scene said Willingham wouldn't go back into the house once he escaped, but took care to move his car away from the burning home.

"The actions he took were not the actions of someone with a kid burning up and him right outside," said Sgt. Jimmie Hensley, the lead investigator for Corsicana police.

The actions he took were not the actions of someone with a kid burning up and him right outside.
--Sgt. Jimmie Hensley

Despite Willingham's complaints about a faulty microwave and squirrels in the attic, firefighters found no sign of electrical issues that might have caused the fire. A space heater in the children's bedroom was off, and the gas line that fed it had no signs of a leak. But they did find burn patterns on the walls and floor that were considered signs some sort of flammable liquid was used to start the blaze, as well as patterns of cracked glass that were considered a sign of arson.

Meanwhile, detectives began to hear about Todd's fights with Stacy, including claims he once beat her in order to cause a miscarriage. Police said he told his mother-in-law that he believed he would be blamed for the deaths because of "unusual marks" on Amber's neck.

Willingham was arrested January 8, 1992, the day before his 24th birthday. He told his stepmother, "I don't have a chance down here."

'He didn't go quietly'

Todd was an outsider in Corsicana, a town about 60 miles south of Dallas. Stacy's family had deep roots there, and he'd moved there to be with her after a stretch in an Oklahoma boot camp for a probation violation.

As a teenager, Todd had started huffing paint and dropped out of school. He'd been on probation for burglary, theft and driving under the influence and did a few days in a county jail for carrying a concealed weapon.

"He was certainly defiant and rebellious, as teenagers sometimes are in high school," Cox said. But his probation officer "took a special interest in him. I think she saw in him, too, that he was a child of inopportunity."

Todd's father, Gene, ran an auto salvage yard in Ardmore, an oil patch town with a sharp line between rich and poor. He took custody of the 13-month-old boy after his ex-wife abandoned him as an infant, and he and Eugenia raised him.

Eugenia Willingham acknowledges that Todd and Stacy had a "stormy" relationship, and that Todd told differing stories in the days after the fire. But she added, "I don't think he really knew what he did. I'm sure he was in shock." And before his execution, he admitted he hadn't gone back inside after his first attempt to find the children.

"He just didn't want people to think he didn't try," she said. "Of course, they thought that anyway."

He just didn't want people to think he didn't try. Of course, they thought that anyway.
--Eugenia Willingham

Willingham's August 1992 trial lasted three days. Prosecutors had offered him a chance to plead guilty in exchange for a life sentence, but he refused.

The Willingham family raised money for his attorneys and for a new suit for the trial, only to hear prosecutors mock Todd as "a baby-killer dressed up like a lawyer," Eugenia said. Witnesses called him a "sociopath" incapable of rehabilitation and suggested the tattoo of a skull on his left shoulder, combined with his fondness for heavy-metal bands like Iron Maiden, indicated a bent toward Satanism -- a claim that still rubs the family raw.

Quick verdict

The jury took less than an hour to find him guilty of capital murder. Eleven and a half years later, his appeals exhausted and pleas for clemency denied, he was headed for the death chamber. His relatives last saw him less than an hour before the execution.

"He told us he had 55 minutes until he'd be a free man," Cavnar said. But when a prison doctor came to check on him, Todd told him, "I'm not going to die on you. You're going to have to kill me."

After the execution, a prison chaplain told the family, "Todd went, but he didn't go quietly."

Stacy was the only one of his relatives to view his death. Though she stood by him during the trial, forcing prosecutors to question her as a hostile witness, she filed for divorce soon after he went to death row. Eventually, Willingham's family said, she came to believe he was guilty -- and as his execution drew near, she refused to allow him to be buried alongside the children.

Witnesses said Todd died cursing her, saying he hoped she would "rot in hell."

"I am an innocent man," he declared, "convicted of a crime I did not commit. I have been persecuted for 12 years for something I did not do."

His body was cremated. Despite Stacy's wishes, his family snuck into Corsicana to scatter some of his ashes on the girls' graves.

I am an innocent man, convicted of a crime I did not commit.
--Todd Willingham's last words

"We weren't in the cemetery 10 minutes before everyone knew it," Eugenia Willingham said.

Efforts to reach Willingham's ex-wife for this story were unsuccessful. But in a statement issued to the Fort Worth Star-Telegram in October, she said Willingham confessed to killing the girls during a visit about two weeks before his execution.

"He said if I didn't have my girls I couldn't leave him and that I could never have Amber or the twins with anyone else but him," her statement reads. "He told me he was sorry and that he hoped that I could forgive him one day."

She had never reported that confession before, and told the Corsicana Daily Sun in 2004 that her ex-husband was sticking to his account of the fire. And Willingham's family disputes the account, his stepmother said.

Cox said the Willinghams have tried to be sensitive to Stacy's family -- but "there's a loss up here not of three lives, but four."

Governor's shakeup draws new scrutiny

In the years between Willingham's trial and execution, Cox tried to get television crime shows interested in her cousin's case. One show, in 2002, featured Gerald Hurst, a chemist and explosives expert in Austin, Texas.

There's a loss up here not of three lives, but four.
--Patricia Cox

"All I had was a town," she said. "So I got on the Internet and I sent six letters out to attorneys who handled arson cases."

One of those lawyers responded with a phone number for Hurst, but Cox said no one answered when she called -- "Not even voice mail." But Todd still had appeals, and it "wasn't critical," she added. After several more unsuccessful efforts, she moved on.

By late 2003, it was critical. The U.S. Supreme Court refused the last of his appeals. His execution date was set for February 2004. Cox had started lobbying the governor's office for a reprieve, and she decided to make one "last desperate attempt" to reach Hurst in early January 2004.

"I just simply picked up the phone again, and he actually answered. I couldn't believe it. I think I was speechless."

With just weeks remaining before the execution, Hurst agreed to look into the case. He concluded that the indicators investigators pointed to as evidence of arson had been rendered obsolete since 1991, and "would be considered invalid in light of current knowledge."

The family was elated by the report. But, Cox said, "It got better before it got worse."

Hurst's report went to the state Court of Criminal Appeals. In a two-page order the day of Willingham's execution, it ruled the report "does not meet the requirements for consideration" as new evidence of innocence.

It also went to the state Board of Pardons and Paroles, which denied a request for clemency, and to Gov. Rick Perry, who could grant only a 30-day stay of execution without the parole board's authorization. None moved to stop Todd's execution.

"We just ran out of time," Cox said. "Todd ran out of time. We all ran out of time."

Innocence Project weighs in

But since 2004, two more reports have backed up Hurst's findings. The first was delivered in 2006 by the Innocence Project, which seeks to clear prison inmates it believes were wrongly convicted. That led the Texas Forensic Science Commission to mount its own investigation.

The commission hired Craig Beyler, chairman of the International Association for Fire Safety Science, to review the evidence against Willingham. And Beyler's report, filed in August, determined that the finding of arson in the Willingham fire "could not be sustained." The investigators who testified the fire was deliberately set "had poor understandings of fire science and failed to acknowledge or apply the contemporaneous understanding of the limitations of fire indicators," it states.

In a 21-page rebuttal, the Corsicana Fire Department says it stands by its original conclusions. Hensley dismissed the reviews as "Monday-morning quarterbacking" by experts unfamiliar with all the evidence.

"I'm firmly a believer that justice was served," Hensley said.

But opponents of capital punishment say the Beyler report has brought Texas eyeball-to-eyeball with the uncomfortable prospect of admitting it had put an innocent man to death. And they say Perry -- a Republican facing a tough primary challenge in March -- blinked.

Report to Texas Forensic Science Commission | Fire department response (PDFs)

Shakeup stalls probe

Two days before the Forensic Science Commission was to question Beyler in a public forum, the governor replaced its chairman and two other members whose terms were up. That forced the commission to delay the hearing so new members could read up on the case, and no new date has been set. Perry has since replaced a third member of the commission.

I'm firmly a believer that justice was served.
--Sgt. Jimmie Hensley

The governor defended the replacements as routine, and says he remains confident of Willingham's guilt. He told reporters in October that Willingham was a "monster" whose conviction was upheld repeatedly by the courts.

But the shakeup has become an issue in his re-election campaign, and a state Senate committee has a hearing scheduled Tuesday to question the Forensic Science Commission's new chairman about his plans for the case.

"I want a status report," state Sen. John Whitmire, D-Houston, the chairman of the Senate Criminal Justice Committee. "He's been there a month."

Back in Ardmore, the Willingham family has learned some hard lessons. One is that there's a legal system in America -- "not necessarily a justice system," Cavnar said.

Now that the Texas investigation is in limbo, Cox said she's choosing her words carefully. The investigation "meant everything to us," she said. "We're a little fearful that it's not going to happen."

But she said they're still determined to press the issue -- not just for Todd, but for others on death row who might be in the same circumstance.

Said Cox: "If you don't think it can happen to you, you're wrong."

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