Inmate is freed after 18 years on Texas' death row

Prosecutor says fatal fire was probably an accident

October 07, 2004|By Scott Gold and Lianne Hart | Scott Gold and Lianne Hart,LOS ANGELES TIMES

HUNTSVILLE, Texas -- A man who spent almost 18 of his 59 years on death row in Texas was abruptly released yesterday after prosecutors -- who once told jurors he was a "satanic demon" -- conceded there is no evidence that he started a fatal fire in 1986.

Ernest Ray Willis, clutching his release papers, walked out of a prison unit here into the arms of his wife, Verilyn. They were married four years ago while he was behind bars; it was the first time they had embraced.

"It didn't sink in until I walked out that door," Willis said, his lip trembling. The twill slacks prison officials had given him to wear were too big in the waist, forcing him to hitch them up with his thumb. "Once Texas gets you, they don't want to let you go," he said. "I walk out of here an innocent man."

Willis said he wasn't sure where he and his wife would live, though they were quick to say it wouldn't be in Texas.

This year, a judge raised troubling questions about Willis' 1987 conviction on a murder-arson charge. That caused Pecos County District Attorney Ori T. White to revisit the case. White hired an arson analyst who pored over the evidence and determined that Willis had been wrongly convicted of setting fire to a house in West Texas.

Not only did Willis not start the fire, which killed two women, the blaze probably wasn't caused by arson at all, the analysis found. Most likely, White said, the fire was caused by an electrical problem -- a broken ceiling fan or a faulty outlet.

"He simply did not do the crime," said White, whose predecessors took Willis to trial. "The justice system actually worked in this case. But admittedly, it worked very slowly. I'm sorry it wasn't quicker. I'm sorry this man was on death row for so long and that there were so many lost years."

U.S. District Judge M. Brock Jones Jr., on White's recommendation, signed the papers Tuesday ordering Willis' release.

Dr. Gerald Hurst, the Austin-based arson analyst White hired, is a retired chemist who spent a long career working with rocket propellants in the aerospace industry and with explosives for defense contractors. He has studied numerous cases as a consultant in recent years and spent two months working on the Willis case.

"I wanted to make sure that I understood everything," Hurst said. "I couldn't find any trace of evidence that this was arson."

The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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