Wednesday, 28 March 2007
July 27, 2004
Federal judge throws out death row inmate's conviction
A federal judge has thrown out a death row inmate's conviction, ruling
that West Texas authorities concealed evidence and needlessly drugged him
during his trial.
U.S. District Judge Royal Furgeson ruled July 21 that there is "strong
reason" to believe Ernest Ray Willis, 58, is innocent of setting a house
fire that killed two women. He was convicted in 1987.
Defense lawyers later discovered that jailers had treated Willis' back
pain with large doses of anti-psychotic drugs, which left him too dazed to
meaningfully confer with his attorneys.
They also later learned that prosecutors had failed to disclose a
psychologist's report saying Willis was not dangerous - a key issue in any
death penalty case.
Furgeson declared in his ruling that the state's highest criminal court
erred when it dismissed those concerns, and he echoed a state trial judge
who ruled four years ago that Willis never received a fair trial.
James S. Blank, who has been representing Willis in his appeal, said his
client was cautiously pleased.
"It was a measured response because he's been in (death row) for 17 years,
and he understands it's not over till it's over," Blank said.
Willis remains on death row while the state decides whether it will appeal
Furgeson's ruling, seek a new trial or set him free. Officials must make a
decision by Nov. 18.
A spokesman for Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott did not immediately
return a telephone call seeking comment.
Furgeson's ruling did not surprise Willis' friend Michael Robinson. The
fire Willis was convicted of setting happened at Robinson's Iraan house.
"Hell, we knew Ernie wasn't guilty," Robinson said in Tuesday's edition of
the San Antonio Express-News. "They didn't have any evidence at all, and
everything they came up with even at the original trial was all just blown
out of proportion."
The fire was ruled an arson, but prosecutors offered no motive to explain
why Willis would set fire to his friend's home.
The case took an odd twist years after the trial when another death row
inmate confessed to setting the fire. David Long claimed he had shown up
at the house, drunk and on drugs, and set it on fire to get even with
Willis' cousin, who also was staying there.
Source : Associated Press