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The exoneration that wasn’t

I don’t know about you, but I’d forgotten about this.

Charlie Baird

A Texas judge who reviewed the controversial 2004 execution of Cameron Todd Willingham planned to posthumously exonerate the father who was put to death for killing his three daughters in a house fire.

Scientific experts who debunked the arson evidence used against Willingham at his 1992 trial and a jailhouse witness who recanted his shaky testimony convinced District Court Judge Charlie Baird in 2010 that “Texas wrongfully convicted” him. But Baird’s order clearing Willingham’s name never became official, because a higher court halted the posthumous inquiry while it considered whether the judge had authority to examine the capital case.

While waiting for permission to finish the case from the Third Court of Appeals, Baird put together the document that “orders the exoneration of Cameron Todd Willingham for murdering his three daughters,” because of “overwhelming, credible and reliable evidence” presented during a one-day hearing in Austin in October 2010.

“You can’t do anything for Willingham except clear his name,” Baird told The Huffington Post. “When they tried Willingham, I’m convinced that everyone worked in good faith. The problem is that up until the execution, everything had changed so dramatically that you realized the science relied upon at trial was not reliable enough to take a man’s life.”

Baird’s intended order never came to light because the court of appeals criticized his handling of the case and prevented him from resuming work on it before he left the bench at the end of 2010 after choosing not to seek re-election. No one asked him for it after the court of appeals blocked him, he said.

Baird, now an attorney in private practice, said he was moved to share the document with HuffPost after reading about Carlos DeLuna, a Texan who a Columbia University team said this week may have been wrongly executed in 1989.

Link via Grits, who asked for and received a copy of Baird’s order. I had previously blogged about Baird’s hearing and the Third Court of Appeals shutting him down. I don’t suppose we’ll ever get past the politics of this case, but I think Baird’s conclusion that a modern day jury would never have convicted on the evidence that was presented at Willingham’s trial is accurate. Whether we’ll ever use our better understanding of the science of fire to correct the wrongs of the past that still can be corrected remains to be seen.

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One Comment

  1. Ginger says:

    Do I have to point out that Baird is running for Travis County DA on the Democratic ticket in the upcoming May 29 primary? I like Baird (and have been called to serve as a juror in his court, where he was very professional) but the timing is pretty obvious.

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