“The petition warrants a hearing,” Judge Baird

The inquiry into the Willingham case will be held in his courtroom on Oct. 6-7, but Judge Baird said that it could be extended if necessary. Supporters of Cameron Todd Willingham hailed the Austin district judge’s decision last Monday to open a two-day court of inquiry next month. He will determine whether Willingham was wrongfully convicted and executed in the deaths of his three daughters, who perished in a Corsicana house fire in 1991.

Former Gov. Mark White, a member of the legal team that petitioned for the rare legal proceeding, said that he believes that there is “overwhelming scientific evidence” to support fire experts’ findings that the arson investigation that led to Willingham’s conviction was outdated and unreliable.

Judge Charlie Baird, who also conducted a court of inquiry that led to the posthumous exoneration of wrongfully convicted inmate Tim Cole of Fort Worth, told the Star-Telegram that he decided to proceed with the court of inquiry in Willingham’s case after reviewing a petition filed last Friday by lawyers representing Willingham’s relatives. “Obviously the most troubling aspect of this — and it just dwarfs everything else — is whether or not to believe that an innocent person has been executed by the state of Texas,” Baird said.

Baird’s decision brought a sharp response from Forensic Science Commission Chairman John Bradley whom Texas Governor Perry appointed as chairman in a membership shakeup last year. Bradley had hoped to finish the commission’s inquiry at the panel’s last meeting in Dallas but was overruled by other members who pushed to continue the Willingham case.

Baird, judge of the 299th District Court in Travis County, said that the inquiry could lead to Willingham’s posthumous exoneration if the findings warrant so. He said that he has no preconceived view on Willingham’s guilt or innocence but felt that questions raised in the case justify further examination. “I agree with them that they’re entitled to a hearing but I wouldn’t say at any level that he’s innocent,” Baird said. “A lot of this stuff has either been done piecemeal or in secret and this will bring it all to light.”

Baird said that he made his decision early last Monday after staying up until midnight on Sunday reviewing the petition. He acknowledged that the two-day hearing would constitute a court of inquiry similar to the review that he conducted in the Tim Cole case. Cole, who was convicted of raping a Texas Tech student, died in prison in 1999 while he and his family were fighting to clear his name. After a court of inquiry in 2009, Baird granted Cole the first posthumous exoneration in Texas after the actual assailant confessed. Cole was also cleared by DNA evidence.

Baird said he could make a ruling within two weeks after the review is concluded. Read more here.