Senior Texas Monthly editor Michael Hall tells the story behind his article, "Death Isn't Fair."
texasmonthly.com: How and when did you discover the Ernest Willis case?
Michael Hall: I heard about it from one of the defense attorneys I initially interviewed, then read about it in the Dallas Morning News. I couldn’t believe there hadn’t been more written about him.
texasmonthly.com: What kind of research went into this piece?
MH: I interviewed a lot of defense attorneys, prosecutors, and judges, plus read all the newspaper stories I could find about the death penalty—of course, there are hundreds. People feel very strongly about the issue. I also talked to families and friends of Willis as well as Michael Blair and Cesar Fierro, the other two guys featured in the story.
texasmonthly.com: How many people did you interview? Who was most helpful in illuminating this issue?
MH: I probably interviewed forty people overall, from activist defense attorneys to law-and-order prosecutors. The most helpful were the few defense attorneys who didn’t have an agenda but who spoke clearly about the problems they see in the system.
texasmonthly.com: Did you speak with Ernest Willis in person? What were your impressions of him?
MH: I visited Ernest twice. He’s a sweet guy, kind of a big teddy bear with a few tattoos and dark circles under his eyes. He seems to be a genuinely good person. Of course, I could be wrong.
texasmonthly.com: In 1990, David Long confessed to the crime for which Willis was sentenced to die. Why was this confession not sufficient in proving Willis’ innocence?
MH: The trial judge thought the confession wasn’t corroborated, but Willis’ attorneys think they can still corroborate it. The problem is that it’s very hard to prove innocence.
texasmonthly.com: While guilt and innocence are not the focus of your story, do you believe Willis committed the crime of which he has been convicted?
MH: My gut feeling is no. After reading all the transcripts and writs and talking with everyone I could, it just seems like he was in the wrong place at the wrong time.
texasmonthly.com: How did your understanding of this case and the death-penalty process change throughout the course of your research?
MH: Well, I’ve always been torn about the death penalty. I’m one of the wishy-washy types who were glad Kenneth McDuff got it but who thinks Karla Faye Tucker should have been pardoned. After doing the story, I’m much more firmly against the death penalty because I’ve seen how unfair the process can be, how easy it is for some poor bastard to get caught up in it. Can we make it fairer? I don’t know, but let’s at least try.
texasmonthly.com: Why has the death-penalty system gotten worse over the years?
MH: I think the system—which is a government system, full of judges, police, DAs, and defense lawyers—is reflective of the society that elects it and pays its salaries. And over the past couple of decades, the mood of the country has changed. For example, the rise of the victims’ rights movement over the past 15 years has put a lot of emphasis on the rights of the victims and not the perpetrators—or the suspected perpetrators. Who cares about murders, suspected murderers, or their rights? There’s the rise of talk radio, which has made people less tolerant, I think, or at least made them feel more free to express intolerant opinions. Another thing is that, after the Oklahoma City bombing, the Congress passed a law severely restricting federal habeas corpus writs, which used to be the inmate’s best hope at getting a new trial. That law is called the Anti-Terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act, and obviously in today’s climate, there’s no way we’re going to tone it down any.
texasmonthly.com: What was the most difficult aspect to writing this story?
MH: Keeping the story focused on fairness and not innocence. The point is that the system is unfair, but often I’d start getting riled up about somebody’s innocence, which I can never prove. I can prove the system is unfair.
texasmonthly.com: What do you think are the chances that the Texas Legislature will institute a moratorium on executions in order to revise the system?
MH: Zero, zip, none.