A two-day hearing is scheduled to start this afternoon in our state capital - actually in the 299th District Court in Travis County Courthouse down in Austin - and it's not your usual weekday hearing. Today, an official Court of Inquiry is set to begin, brought pursuant to Texas Code of Criminal Procedure Article 52.01(b)(2) and the motion filed by District Attorney R. Lowell Thompson of Corsicana.
The purpose of the action? To review the case of convicted arsonist/murderer Cameron Todd Williams in order to determine whether or not an innocent man was killed by lethal injection by the State of Texas back in 2004.
This is a big deal. Of course, it's a big deal if an innocent man was executed -- but it's also a big deal that the Texas criminal justice system appears to be grading its own papers, instituting its own investigation into the matter. Wow.
Motion to Recuse the Presiding Judge Also Set to be Heard Today
Before you get ready to drive to Austin, wait a minute. A challenge to the presiding judge has been filed, too. Sometime this morning, it's expected that State District Judge Charlie Baird will rule on whether or not he'll preside over the Inquiry. There are those that argue he shouldn't be involved - including the Navarro County District Attorney, who is seeking the recusal of Judge Baird. (Willingham was convicted in Navarro County - the prosecutor responsible for the conviction is seeking the recusal.)
However, it's curious because Judge Baird's role is not fact-finder: under Article 52.01(b), he must request that the district's presiding judge appoint another judge to review the evidence. Baird doesn't have that job.
The recusal motion is set for 10:30; the inquiry, at 1:30 this afternoon. Many are expecting a delay due to the recusal request.
Of particular note: Judge Baird has experience in handling a court of inquiry. He oversaw the court of inquiry into the conviction of Tim Cole (of Fort Worth).
Result: Tim Cole was exonerated, posthumously. (For details on Tim Cole's case, check out our earlier post.)
Was Cameron Todd Willingham Innocent?
Mr. Willingham went to his death never veering from his claim of being innocent of the murders of his three children, Amber (2 years old) along with 1 year old twins Karmon and Kameron, by arson in a fire that killed all three of them as they slept in their Corsicana home back in 1991. Willingham was tried, convicted, and executed in 2004.
Numerous respected experts have reviewed the arson investigation and determined that the case against Willingham was filled with errors and based upon outdated methodology.
What Does This Mean for Us?
This level of public scrunity into the justice system doesn't happen everyday - grading the papers long after the case is over, and in this instance, the man is dead. If the State of Texas executed an innocent man, it's a travesty. However, the fact that it isn't been swept under a rug -- that the system is checking itself -- this is a good thing for Texas.