Texas Innocence Project lawyers ask court to reconsider rebuke

AUSTIN, Texas (AP) -- Innocence Project attorneys who say a Texas man convicted of arson was wrongly executed have asked an appeals court to reconsider its rebuke of a judge who held a recent hearing in the case.

Lawyers for the family of Cameron Willingham asked the 3rd Texas Court of Appeals to reconsider its Dec. 22 ruling that Judge Charlie Baird "abused his discretion" by not recusing himself or referring a motion for his recusal to another judge. The Austin American-Statesman reported the development Tuesday.

Baird presided over an October hearing into whether Willingham was wrongly executed for setting a 1991 fire that killed his three daughters.

Although Willingham was executed in 2004, many of the nation's foremost fire experts, some of whom testified in October, now say the blaze was accidental.

Baird told the newspaper that while the reconsideration issue remains unresolved, he is not required to refer the recusal motion to state District Judge Billy Ray Stubblefield, the administrative judge for the region that includes Travis County.

Neither the motion for reconsideration pending before the appeals court nor the recusal motion pending before Baird are likely to be resolved before Baird's retirement at the end of the year. The case will likely fall to Baird's successor, former Travis County prosecutor Karen Sage.

Some of Willingham's relatives and attorneys from the Innocence Project, an organization that specializes in wrongful conviction cases, are trying to clear Willingham's name and get the state to acknowledge he was wrongly executed.

If he were exonerated, it would mark the first time any state official in the nation's most active death penalty state has formally declared someone was wrongfully executed.

Navarro County District Attorney R. Lowell Thompson, whose office convicted Willingham in 1992, sought to stop the October 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.

Baird refused to rule on the recusal motion in October, saying Thompson didn't have standing in the case. Thompson then successfully won an emergency stay the same day, barring Baird from issuing an opinion on whether Willingham was wrongly convicted.

Willingham publicly maintained his innocence, saying he did not set the fire that killed his 2-year-old daughter and 1-year-old twin girls.

His ex-wife, Stacy Kuykendall, said he confessed his guilt to her shortly before his execution. But lawyers with the Innocence Project say Kuykendall has gone back and forth over the years on whether he confessed.

Testimony from fire investigators was the primary evidence against Willingham in his original trial. The defense did not present a fire expert because the one hired by Willingham's attorney also said the fire was caused by arson. Willingham's original trial attorney, David Martin, has repeatedly told the AP that his client was guilty.

Published: Thu, Dec 30, 2010

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