A state appeals court halted a hearing Thursday that was to determine whether Texas wrongfully executed a man based on faulty arson evidence.
The court granted an emergency stay and ordered District Judge Charlie Baird not to rule on the case. The order gives Innocence Project lawyers seeking to clear Cameron Todd Willingham's name until Oct. 22 to respond.
Willingham was executed in 2004 after being convicted of setting fire to his Corsicana home, killing his three daughters. If he is exonerated, it would mark the first time an official in the nation's most active death penalty state has formally declared someone was wrongfully executed.
Navarro County District Attorney R. Lowell Thompson, whose office convicted Willingham in 1992, sought the stay after Baird declined to recuse himself. Thompson has questioned Baird's impartiality, noting he received an award this year from the Texas Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty.
Thompson said he was pleased with the order.
"I don't mean any disrespect to the judge, but I am going to follow procedures," Thompson said.
Innocence Project co-founder Barry Scheck said he is confident the stay will be lifted next week, permitting Baird to issue a ruling on Willingham's guilt or innocence.
"We have great law on our side," Scheck said.
The appeals court order came at the end of an afternoon of testimony in which two fire experts said the blaze that killed Willingham's three daughters was an accident, not arson.
Florida-based fire expert John Lentini ridiculed the findings and testimony of a deputy fire marshal who concluded Willingham set the house fire that killed his 2-year-old daughter and 1-year-old twins. That fire marshal, Manuel Vasquez, has since died.
"The bottom line is all of the evidence is consistent with an accidental fire," Lentini said.
The State Fire Marshal's Office continues to stand behind the arson finding.
Lentini referred to Vasquez as "misinformed" and "totally off the wall" and said his conclusions were "completely without merit, completely unreliable."
Later, Baird seemed to hint at which way he was leaning when he asked fire expert Gerald Hurst, "If we can say it wasn't arson, can we say what it was?"
Hurst replied that he believed the fire was an accident, probably caused by faulty wiring.
San Antonio lawyer Gerry Goldstein also presented evidence that a jailhouse snitch who testified in the original trial that Willingham had confessed later changed his story. Goldstein presented an affidavit showing the informant had recanted.
Their testimony was not challenged by anyone because Thompson had left to seek the stay.
Eugenia Willingham, the stepmother of the executed man, told reporters she was grateful for the chance to present new evidence in court.
"I just don't think there are words," she said, her eyes welling.
The hearing was part of an unusual court of inquiry hearing that was granted by Baird, who began the proceeding by declining to recuse himself.
John Bradley, a district attorney who chairs the Texas Forensic Science Commission that is looking into whether fire investigators in the case committed professional misconduct, blasted Baird's decision in an e-mail to The Associated Press.
"As long as Baird is inventing his own authority to hold a hearing, I suppose the public shouldn't be surprised he would ignore the laws requiring him to be an unbiased judge as well," Bradley wrote.
Lawyers and experts for the Innocence Project and Willingham swarmed the courtroom about 30 minutes before the hearing, lining up extra chairs behind the counsel table, readying multimedia presentations and shutting window blinds to make their videos easier to see. About 10 attorneys, including former Texas Gov. Mark White, and Willingham's relatives sat on one side.
Outside the courthouse, a small group of protesters from the Texas Moratorium Network carried signs and wore T-shirts proclaiming Willingham's innocence.
Stacy Kuykendall, Willingham's ex-wife, declined an invitation from Baird to testify at the hearing. She told reporters last week that Willingham confessed his guilt to her shortly before his execution — although Innocence Project lawyers say she has gone back and forth over the years on whether he confessed.Willingham publicly maintained his innocence.
"Unfortunately, every time the anti-death penalty advocates renew their crusade against capital punishment using this case, old wounds are opened up for her," wrote Johnny Sutton, Kuykendall's attorney, in a letter to Baird. "Todd Willingham is not a victim but a convicted murderer whose case was reviewed by numerous courts, including the United States Supreme Court. The true victims are Amber, Kameron and Karmon, and we need to remember them."
Willingham was executed after Gov. Rick Perry turned down his final appeal despite evidence from a renowned fire expert that there was not enough evidence to support the arson determination.
Testimony from fire investigators was the primary evidence against Willingham. The defense did not present a fire expert because the one hired by Willingham's attorney also said the fire was caused by arson.