Separated At Death

Ernest Willis and Cameron Todd Willingham had a lot in common: same crime, same sentence, same questions about the forensic science that convicted them. The main difference? Willis is still alive.
Separated At Death
AGE OF INNOCENCE: “I was amazed,” Willis says about the first time he spoke with Willingham, in the rec yard. “His case was just like mine.”
Photograph by Wyatt McSpadden

Ernest Willis has one vice left: smoking. He smokes in his purple Lincoln Town Car, driving around Midland. He smokes while chatting with his neighbor in his front yard. He smokes at the kitchen table in his condo, which he shares with his son Shawn, who sells cars at a dealership in Odessa. Willis spends a lot of time in the condo. He likes to get up early, usually about six-thirty, and make a pot of coffee. Then he smokes a cigarette and turns on the news. He makes sure Shawn gets up in time to go to work. Sometimes Willis goes over to visit his brother Alton in Odessa, and maybe after a while they’ll have lunch at a nearby Furr’s Cafeteria. “I spend a lot of time with Alton,” Willis told me. “We go eat, sit around and talk. We get in the car and drive around, go out and look the country over. We do whatever we decide.”

It’s not a fancy life, but Willis cherishes it for a simple reason: He almost lost it. In 1987 Willis, an oil field roughneck, was convicted of setting a fire that killed two women in Iraan. He spent seventeen years on death row and in 1991 came close to being executed. Except that he was innocent of the crime. He was finally cleared of all charges and released from prison in 2004. Since then, he has done his best to slip back into a normal life. He doesn’t reflect much on his years on death row. “The only time I think about it is when someone brings it up,” he told me. “It’s wiped out of my mind. Everybody said, ‘You’ll need counseling.’ They were surprised when I was able to move on.”

This fall Willis, who turned 64 in September, has been thinking about it more than usual. In particular he’s been thinking about Cameron Todd Willingham, a fellow death row inmate whose 2004 execution has been at the center of a controversy surrounding Governor Rick Perry. Willis and Willingham were similar in a lot of ways. They were both country boys—Willis from New Mexico, Willingham from Oklahoma—who liked hunting, drinking, and carousing. Both were unemployed and living in small Texas towns when they were accused of setting fires that killed people (in Willingham’s case, his three small daughters in 1991). Both were convicted of capital murder on the basis of the testimony of investigators who believed they had found evidence of arson. Both were sent to death row. Eventually both were vindicated by modern science, which determined that there was absolutely no evidence of arson in either case. The fires were almost certainly accidents.

And that is where the similarities end. The same year that Willis walked free, Willingham was executed. The following year the Legislature created the Forensic Science Commission to investigate scientific negligence and misconduct. In 2008 the FSC started looking into the strangely similar cases of Willingham and Willis. A nationally recognized arson expert named Craig Beyler was brought in to study both fires. This past August his report was released; like eight experts who had come before him, Beyler concluded that neither fire was a result of arson. He was set to testify before the FSC on October 2, and the commission’s final report on the cases was on target for early 2010.

That’s when the governor stepped in. As is now well-known, on September 30 Perry replaced three members of the commission, including its chairman, whose seat he gave to law-and-order Williamson County district attorney John Bradley. Bradley, who had originally been appointed to the district attorney’s office by Perry in 2001, promptly canceled the meeting, which sparked a national outcry. It looked an awful lot like the governor had used a crony to scuttle a meeting at which the commission was going to hear from an expert that Perry had overseen the execution of an innocent man. Many commentators called it a cover-up.

Willis watched it all unfold on the TV in his living room, well aware that it could have just as easily been him—dead and buried—at the center of the controversy. He knew that for all the similarities in his case and Willingham’s, there was one huge difference: He had been represented pro bono in his appeals by Latham and Watkins, a giant international law firm that could afford to spend more than $5 million on his defense, money that paid for, among other things, the forensic experts who disputed the arson claim. Willingham had a court-appointed attorney with no extra money to hire anyone. “If he could have hung on just three or four or five more months, he would have been in the same shape I was,” Willis said. “He would have walked out of there a free man.”

It made him angry. “I know Governor Perry is trying to sweep this under the carpet,” he told me. “He even called Todd a monster. Well, they called me a monster too.” I asked Willis what he thought was going through Willingham’s mind as he lay on the gurney, waiting for the lethal injection. “I don’t know. I imagine he was thinking about his kids. Living with the knowledge that you didn’t do it when other people think you did—that was the hard part. But when I was a few days away, the thing that went through my head was ‘I’m innocent. A lot of people believe I am. I’m ready for it.’ I’d built myself up. I knew my chances were slim in Texas. I’d made my mind up—if they were gonna execute me, I was just gonna lay down and go to sleep.”

On June 10, 1986, Willis was in the wrong place at the wrong time with the wrong people—none of which was unusual for him. He had spent his twenties and thirties living it up, drinking and partying and chasing women, six of whom he married and divorced. Now he was an alcoholic in constant pain from two recent back surgeries,

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