Ernest Ray Willis, better known as Ernie, had every right to let his anger get the better of him, but he never did. Ernie’s number one beef was with the State of Texas, which tried its best to kill him, even though the worst thing he’d ever done was drink too much and get behind the wheel of a truck. That particular misunderstanding began in 1986 in Pecos County, when the district attorney used flimsy forensic science to indict Ernie for capital murder. Then, while in jail awaiting trial, Ernie was doped up with anti-psychotic medicine, leaving him looking, during the trial, like a “satanic demon,” in the words of the prosecutor. He was convicted and sent to death row, where he forced himself to keep his anger down. “You can’t hate and hate and hate,” he told himself. Somehow, he maintained this attitude even when, in 1991, the state came within 48 hours of executing him. He was freed 13 years later, in 2004, after his lawyers finally convinced the courts he was innocent. Ernie was 59 and had had 17 and a half years stolen from him. Still, he kept his cool. “Nothing can bring back those years,” he said in his slow West Texas drawl.
Ernie could have also complained mightily about his body, which had taken a lot of abuse and neglect while he was on death row and started failing him after he got out. Living in Mississippi with his wife, Verilyn, he lost one leg to diabetes and then another. He was in constant pain from his back. Still he wouldn’t give in. Even after Verilyn died, he was determined to live out the rest of his days as best he could. Finally, on January 7, at age 75, Ernie’s hard, strange life caught up with him, and he died at home—17 years after walking off death row. His death certificate read “natural causes.” You might say that, considering all he was up against, he was lucky to make it as long as he did. But the truth is Ernie made his own luck. He worked hard to live as long as he did.
I got to know Ernie in 2002 when I was doing a long piece on capital punishment for Texas Monthly. His story was unbelievable. In his younger days, Ernie had been a tall (six foot three), soft-spoken, hardheaded, good-looking roughneck who spent his days as a tool pusher in the oil fields of eastern New Mexico and West Texas—and his nights chasing a good time. When he got in trouble it was because of his drinking; his entire criminal record involved three DWIs, a couple of obscene phone calls, and one naked visit to the drive-through window of a fast-food restaurant.
By the time Ernie got to Odessa in 1986 he was forty, an alcoholic with six ex-wives and a bad back caused by a 1970 accident that had led to four surgeries. On June 10, 1986, he was living in a trailer with his cousin Billy Willis, who made and sold bathtub speed, and they found themselves at a party in the small town of Iraan with two women they’d just met. At some point, Ernie took off his eel-skin boots and passed out on the couch, and early the next morning the house caught on fire. Ernie and Billy made it out, but the women didn’t.
Though there was no physical evidence against Ernie, he was charged with capital murder. The prosecution’s theory was that he set the fire; “pour patterns” on the floor showed Ernie had used some kind of accelerant. While he sat in jail, he was given high daily doses of the anti-psychotics Haldol and perphenazine, which gave him a doped-up look that, once the trail started, the prosecutors used to full advantage, referring to his “cold fish eyes.” Ernie’s young defense attorney, who had four years’ experience and had never tried a death penalty case, rarely objected. (Neither the DA’s office nor jail officials ever gave an explanation for the drugs.) It took the jury only an hour to sentence Ernie to death.
Once he got to death row, he reckoned he couldn’t let his anger rule him. “I knew if I didn’t let it go, I couldn’t survive,” he told me later. “I let all that go.” Still, he would look around at the walls of his five-by-nine-foot cell and fall into a funk. He stopped going outside and playing basketball. He ate compulsively and his weight grew to three hundred pounds. The trial court kept setting and resetting execution dates for Ernie, which made everything worse. “Living with the knowledge that you didn’t do it when other people think you did, that was the hard part,” he told me later. “But when [in 1991] 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.” Luckily for Ernie, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals granted him a stay.
A year later, Ernie finally got some help. First came a small army from a large New York commercial law firm, which took on his appeals pro bono. The firm sent five lawyers, a private eye, and an arson investigator to look into the case. Not only did they find the records of the jailhouse doping, they located a former drug partner of Billy’s who confessed to having set the fire, a psychologist’s report (withheld from the defense) that found Ernie was not a future danger to anyone, and an arson expert who said the forensic evidence used at trial was absolutely bogus.
One of Ernie’s appellate attorneys, Austin-based Rob Owen, would often visit him on death row. Owen had other death row clients too, but he always arranged to see Ernie last. Most of his cases were not auspicious ones, but Ernie’s was different. “I always believed Ernie would get out,” Owen told me. “It was a tonic to talk to him—we’d always talk about hopeful things. He had a wicked sense of humor.” They’d talk about the future and about the San Francisco 49ers, Ernie’s favorite NFL team. Owen was always amazed at Ernie’s outlook. “The consuming sense of injustice must have been gutting. But he had a deeply Zen attitude to everything: bad things happen, and one of them happened to me, but I’m not going to let it define me. His willfulness had a lot to do with him surviving death row. Ernie survived it because he was so obstinate.”
Then there was Verilyn Harbin, the sister of Ernie’s friend and fellow death row inmate Ricky McGinn, who introduced them via letters. Verilyn, who was from Mississippi, and Ernie hit it off and began writing each other daily, and soon she was visiting, speaking to him from the other side of a Plexiglas window. They fell in love and married (using a proxy) in 2000. The two had never even touched, but, she told me for my story “Death Isn’t Fair,” which was published in December 2002, “He is the most loving person I’ve ever met.”
In 2004, Ernie got his most powerful ally yet. Federal judge Royal Furgeson was repelled by the actions of the State of Texas and wrote about Ernie that “both his conviction and sentence were obtained in violation of the United States Constitution.” Furgeson ordered the district attorney to either retry Ernie or set him free. The DA said he thought the facts exonerated Ernie, and on October 8, he was freed. He walked out of prison and into Verilyn’s arms, where she held him for a full minute. “There’s so much catching up to do,” he told reporters, “but we’re going to catch it up a day at a time, hour by hour, minute by minute.” First he had to get out of Texas. So he climbed into Verilyn’s car and they headed to Grenada, Mississippi.
Some exonerees seek the limelight, some push for change. Others just want to get back to their lives. That was Ernie. I saw him in 2005 at the courthouse in Fort Stockton when he got his arrest record expunged—he wanted to be able to carry a gun again so he could go hunting. He had lost a lot of weight and looked fit and confident. His back was still in pain; he had gotten no help for it behind bars, plus he had diabetes, which he blamed on the bad prison food. He’d driven from Mississippi in a new truck he’d bought with the money the state paid him as compensation for his years behind bars. He’d bought Verilyn a car too, and would buy cars for his two sons as well. He got himself an eighteen-wheeler, with which he started a business; soon he and Verilyn were hauling houses and boats back and forth across the country. “There was no place we wouldn’t go,” he told me, “except New York. I told Verilyn there’s too much traffic.”
Ernie might have been a budding entrepreneur, but he was also at heart still an oil field roughneck, and it wasn’t long before he was reverting to some of his wild old ways. He and Verilyn often argued heatedly. “They were the exact same,” said her daughter Krystal Greer, “that’s why they clashed. They were each stubborn and bullheaded.” The couple split in 2007 and he moved to Midland, where he lived with his son Shawn; Ernie’s brother Alton lived in nearby Odessa.
A couple of years later I visited him in Midland to talk about the controversial case of Cameron Todd Willingham, who had been executed in 2004 for setting fire to his house and killing his three children. Willingham, whom Ernie had gotten to know on death row, had been convicted on similar evidence, in particular the pour patterns on the floor. Now Willingham’s case was a national scandal, and experts were saying he, like Ernie, was innocent. Ernie was quite aware that the only difference between him and the dead man was that he had a pro bono New York law firm that spent $5 million to free him, while Willingham had a court-appointed appellate lawyer. “If he could have hung on just three or four or five more months,” Ernie told me, “he would have been in the same shape I was. He would have walked out of there a free man.”
Ernie was by no means an activist, but he believed what many people came to believe. “Texas executed an innocent man,” he said.
I saw him again in 2012 at a press conference in Austin where members of Willingham’s family spoke about trying to get him posthumously pardoned. Ernie had told me he was going to drive all the way from Mississippi—he’d reunited with Verilyn and moved back there—to give his two cents. I was standing by an elevator when the door opened and a thin old man rolled out in a wheelchair. It was Ernie, who weighed about 135 pounds and looked downright feeble. He pulled himself along the carpet with his left leg; his right was gone below the knee, lost from diabetes. Ernie cried as he spoke about Willingham. Afterward, he told me he wanted to write a book about his life and he wanted my help, but he wasn’t quite ready yet. There was too much to do back in Mississippi, plus he didn’t want to make Verilyn jealous of the life he had lived. He hinted that though he had been officially married seven times, the actual number was much higher. I was intrigued. I could imagine the title: “The wild life of a gentle roughneck who beat the Texas criminal justice system.”
Four years later, Verilyn died of a massive heart attack; Ernie, who was with her at the end, took it hard. By this time his condition had worsened drastically. He was smoking heavily and had lost his second leg (“I’m walking on stilts,” he told me over the phone in September 2016) and was passing blood. He thought he had cancer but, typically hardheaded, he wouldn’t go to the doctor because he didn’t want to undergo chemo. He was still determined to take care of himself, aided by money he still received from the State of Texas. He had his truck set up so he could drive and he’d head over to Tunica and play blackjack or sit around in his recliner, smoking and watching the news. He was still in constant pain and every three months he’d drive to Midland to visit his pain doctor. “I’m gonna do what I can while I can,” he told me. Shawn had moved nearby and he loved hanging out with him. He would also visit Krystal’s teenaged kids and drive them around. “He spoilt the hell out of my kids,” said Krystal.
Ernie told me he was finally ready to do the book. “I feel like I need to do it soon,” he said. “I’m not getting any younger or healthier.” We talked about getting together that Thanksgiving in Austin, on his return trip from Midland to Mississippi. He would drive his motor home to a nearby Walmart, set up, and we’d work together for a couple of days. He wanted some help remembering the details and asked me to send him the stories I’d written on him, and I did.
But when I called him in mid-November to schedule our rendezvous, he didn’t pick up. I tried again several times over the next week and couldn’t get him. I couldn’t get hold of his brother Alton or anyone else and, when I didn’t hear from Ernie over the next few months, I assumed the worst. But out of the blue he called in December 2019. He had recently fallen and broken his hip, plus now he had problems with his neck and hands. “I just hurt all the time,” he said. I called several times during the pandemic but could never get Ernie on the phone.
Finally, late last year, he called me back. He sounded drained. “Well, Michael,” he said in his slow drawl, “it doesn’t look like we’re ever gonna get a chance to write that book, are we?” We both laughed sadly; it was clear Ernie was near the end. Not long after that, he was admitted to a hospital, but there wasn’t much they could do and they sent him home to die with his family. January 6 was Verilyn’s birthday. “He got real bad on her birthday,” said Krystal. The next morning, Ernie opened his eyes. “Verilyn,” he said, “I’m coming to see you, sweetie.” Then he died.
His obituary was brief, mentioning his family and his years as a tool pusher and the owner of a transport company. It said nothing about his time on the toughest death row in the country, his refusal to give in to despair, or his determination to live life as best he could—wherever he was. His friend Rob Owen thought Ernie would have liked it just fine. “His obituary was on target,” Owen said. “He told me at that hearing in 2005, ‘I don’t want to live my life as the guy who got off death row, because then I’m never gonna escape that.’”