Senior editor Michael Hall talks about Ernest Willis, who was recently freed from death row, and the super-conservative Texas Court of Criminal Appeals.
texasmonthly.com: What interested you in writing about the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals now? Is it the court’s apparent shift to more moderate decisions or the legacy of some of its more conservative judgments?
Michael Hall: I did a story on the unfairness of the state’s death-penalty system two years ago, and it was clear then that the Court of Criminal Appeals [CAA] was the main villain. The Court is the highest criminal court in the state, yet it was doing nothing to correct serious problems, such as prosecutors running amok and court-appointed defense lawyers not doing anything for their clients. When the Supreme Court threw out Delma Banks’s death sentence in February—an execution the CCA had, to my mind, cavalierly affirmed the year before—I thought maybe it was time. Then I found a number of other recent cases in which CCA decisions made during its super-conservative years (1996–2000) had been overruled by federal courts, and I said, “Okay let’s definitely do this now.”
texasmonthly.com: How did you react when you heard that DNA test results, potentially strong evidence in court, were dismissed by the CCA?
MH: I think I reacted like most people: “What?!” When you go back and read the Roy Criner case files, you see that Judge Sharon Keller truly seemed to feel that the other evidence in the case—Criner’s statements to three people that he’d forced a young woman to have sex with him—were good enough to convict him. And it’s true; they’re pretty problematic for the defendant. But all Criner was asking for was a new trial so that these statements and the DNA evidence could be presented to a jury. Keller and the court said no. That’s bizarre.
texasmonthly.com: Which of the cases that you wrote about struck you the most?
MH: Ernest Willis, just because he is one of the few inmates I’ve ever researched who I am absolutely certain is innocent. He was in the wrong place at the wrong time and was sentenced to die—and no one from the State of Texas ever tried to help him.
texasmonthly.com: Why has Judge Keller avoided the media? What came of your attempts to contact her?
MH: She turned me down for interviews in 2002 and again this summer. Before we went to press this issue, I called to see if she wanted to comment on our story, which I said was a tough but (I thought) fair look at her and the Court. She said she didn’t want to. I don’t know why she avoids the media. She has done various news-type stories for Texas Lawyer and the newspapers. But she’s a private person and she doesn’t like the spotlight. Unfortunately for her, she is in a very public position.
texasmonthly.com: Judge Keller comes across as withdrawn and quiet; how did she come to wield so much power on the court?
MH: I think she was groomed for her position by the previous presiding judge, Mike McCormick. But many of the presiding judge’s responsibilities are administrative ones. She got her power by coming on the court when she did, when the Republicans took over the state in 1994. And then she was on the winning side over and over with a couple of others of similar conservative views. Now they’re gone and she’s still there.
texasmonthly.com: How common is it for the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles to be in opposition to the CCA, such as with Roy Criner’s case?
MH: The Board of Pardons and Paroles very rarely grants a pardon, and almost never does it unanimously. That’s a real sign of how egregious—and, of course, political—this case was.
texasmonthly.com: Is it likely that the CCA, and not George W. Bush, was partly responsible for the high number of executions during Bush’s tenure as governor?
MH: I don’t think Bush, really, had much to do with it. Any governor would have done the same. As I recall, Ann Richards presided over plenty of executions in her day. The CCA is much more responsible, just because it is the highest court. The CCA has the final say, plus it keeps everyone below it in line. If the CCA wanted to make some changes in the way things are done, the changes would get made.
texasmonthly.com: Did you have an opportunity to speak to any of the accused inmates who the CCA kept in prison or on death row in the face of conflicting evidence?
MH: Besides Willis, two years ago I spoke with Michael Blair, who was convicted of molesting and killing a little girl in Dallas ten years ago. He was convicted on hair-comparison testimony that has since been debunked by DNA tests. Yet he still sits on death row. He’s not a very sympathetic character—he’s a confirmed child molester—yet he is innocent of the charges that put him on death row.
texasmonthly.com: After writing this story, what’s your opinion of Texas’ system of electing rather than appointing judges?
MH: The truth is, if we elect judges, we’re going to elect politicians, and we shouldn’t have politicians as judges. I can see problems with appointing judges, too—as one lawyer told me, the governor would just appoint his golf buddies—but I have to think some kind of appointment-retention system would be better than what we have now. A bipartisan committee would make a list of candidates, the governor would appoint them, and the people would vote on whether to retain them or not.
texasmonthly.com: What do you think about Ernest Willis finally being released from death row?
MH: It was so heartening. I talked with his lawyers and some others who worked on the case, and they had the same reaction. They couldn’t believe it, and they were so thrilled. This doesn’t happen much in Texas, and it couldn’t have happened to a nicer guy. I was so thrilled to actually meet Ernest in the free world. When I visited him on death row, he was always in prison whites, under fluorescent lights, in a little closet talking on a phone and looking through a Plexiglas window. Here he was with his wife, in real-world clothes, and he seemed like what he was—a regular guy, a good guy, a guy who got screwed by the State of Texas but who was now determined to get on with the rest of his life.