San Antonio Express-News

DA wants death row inmate freed

Web Posted: 10/05/2004 12:00 AM CDT

Maro Robbins
San Antonio Express-News

More than 17 years after Ernest Willis went to death row for setting a house fire that consumed two sleeping women, West Texas prosecutors cited new suspects Monday.

Faulty wiring perhaps. Maybe a defective ceiling fan.

Finding little to no evidence of arson, the Fort Stockton district attorney said he would file a motion today that is expected to make Willis the first inmate to walk free from Texas' death row in seven years.

The decision to dismiss the case comes three months after a San Antonio federal judge ruled that authorities would have to release or retry the 59-year-old, who was accused of setting flame to a friend's home in Iraan in 1986.

"I don't have to decide whether he's innocent or not, but I think that's probably a probability — that he is innocent," said Ori White, the district attorney in the 112th judicial district.

Once the charges are dropped, Willis will be the state's eighth death row inmate exonerated since Texas reinstated capital punishment in 1974, according to the Death Penalty Information Center.

The news may not reach Willis until today. The inmate's attorney, James Blank of the firm Latham & Watkins, said he was unable to arrange a phone call any earlier.

Blank said it remains uncertain when Willis actually will leave Row 1, Cell 32 of the Polunsky Unit in East Texas. A state district judge must sign the order, then a certified copy must go to prison officials.

For the first time, Willis will be able to embrace his wife, Verilyn Willis, a Mississippi resident who met her husband while her brother was on death row.

"I'm waiting and I'm ready — I am ready to bring him home," she said. "I love that guy with all my heart."

Some seized on Willis' vindication as additional evidence that Texas should suspend executions while it re-examines the justice system that administers capital punishment.

"It's only by conducting that thorough review ... that we're going to stop sending innocent people to prison — to death row — and make certain the guilty are the ones convicted," said Steve Hall, director of StandDown Texas, a group that has called for a moratorium on executions.

In July, U.S. District Judge Royal Furgeson of San Antonio noted the evidence in the case was entirely circumstantial and issued a ruling that declared there is "strong reason to be concerned that Willis may be actually innocent."

Four years before, the state trial judge who oversaw the proceedings, Brock Jones of Ozona, ruled that Willis never received a fair trial.

For legal reasons, Furgeson's July ruling hinged on findings that the inmate did not get a fair trial.

Specifically, the judge said Willis unnecessarily received large doses of medication that left him too dazed to meaningfully confer with his attorneys.

His defense lawyers failed to adequately serve their client, asking only two questions at the sentencing hearing.

And prosecutors never told the defense that a psychologist evaluated Willis and drafted a report suggesting he might not be dangerous — a crucial issue in any death penalty trial.

When Furgeson told authorities to free or retry the former oilfield worker, the decision fell to White, the DA in Pecos County who took office after Willis was prosecuted.

White hired two arson investigators to examine the evidence, and they cast further doubt on Willis' guilt.

Both said the fire's cause could not be determined and that it could have had many plausible causes besides arson. One called some of the scientific testimony at Willis' trial "absurd."

That expert, Gerald L. Hurst, said the initial suspicions of arson rested on a flawed and now-outdated understanding of the physics of fire.

Seventeen years later, the deaths of Gail Joe Allison of Sheffield and Elizabeth Grace Belue, reportedly of San Antonio, looked much different to experts.

Willis and his cousin were staying with home owner Michael Robinson when flames spread through the house and consumed the sleeping women. Prosecutors blamed the blaze on Willis but offered no motive.

Hurst wrote, "There is not a single item of physical evidence in this case which supports a finding of arson."

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