Release Date:  December 21, 2010
Contact:  Michael Rushford
(916) 446-0345

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Texas Court of Appeals Rebukes Lawless Willingham Judge
Judge Charlie Baird Ordered to Comply With State Recusal Law

In Austin, Texas, Judge Charlie Baird had been conducting a “court of inquiry” looking into the controversial case of Cameron Todd Willingham, executed in 2004 for the arson murder of his three young daughters. The Innocence Project, which claims the fire was accidental, steered this inquiry to a judge known for opposition to the death penalty. By conducting the inquiry himself instead of referring the matter to the presiding judge, Judge Baird was acting in clear violation of two Texas laws.

On October 14, the Texas Court of Appeals issued a stay of the proceedings while it considered arguments for a permanent order. Today, that court ordered Judge Baird to either recuse himself or refer the matter to the presiding judge to assign the recusal motion to another judge. Justice David Puryear dissented on procedural grounds. Although he concluded “that Judge Baird is exercising authority he does not possess,” he also concluded that the Court of Appeals did not have jurisdiction to stop him.

Texas law authorizes district judges to convene a “court of inquiry” to determine whether there is probable cause to believe a crime has been committed and, if so, refer the matter for prosecution. In effect, the law permits a judge to sit as a one-man grand jury. As explained in Justice Puryear’s dissenting opinion, the procedure is not authorized for the purpose of mounting a collateral attack on an old conviction.

Because of past abuse of the law, the Texas Legislature amended it to prohibit the judge who calls for the court of inquiry from presiding over it himself. See Texas Code of Criminal Procedure, Article 52.01(b)(2). “This statute is intended to stop exactly the kind of judge-shopping that the Innocence Project engaged in here,” said Kent Scheidegger, Legal Director of the Sacramento-based Criminal Justice Legal Foundation. “Judge Baird ignored this law, convening the court of inquiry and presiding over it himself,” he added.

Lowell Thompson, the district attorney whose predecessor prosecuted the case, made a motion for Judge Baird to recuse himself. The rule on recusal motions also prohibits the challenged judge from ruling to keep himself on the case. Texas Rule of Civil Procedure 18a requires the judge to either recuse himself or refer the matter to the presiding judge to assign for hearing. Today’s order requires Judge Baird to comply with this requirement.

While the forensic evidence in the Willingham case remains hotly disputed, other evidence continues to point to his guilt. The other evidence is described in articles by Janet Jacobs in the Corsicana Daily Sun on September 6, 2009, and October 15, 2009.

The opinions issued today in this case are available at the following links:
Majority: http://www.3rdcoa.courts.state.tx.us/opinions/pdfOpinion.asp?OpinionID=19827
Dissent: http://www.3rdcoa.courts.state.tx.us/opinions/pdfOpinion.asp?OpinionID=19828
Links to the Corsicana Daily Sun articles:
http://corsicanadailysun.com/thewillinghamfiles/x46870673/-09-06-09-No-doubts
http://corsicanadailysun.com/local/x546111012/Affidavits-dispute-claims-of-innocence
Statement of Stacy Kuykendall, mother of the victims in this case:
http://www.crimeandconsequences.com/crimblog/2010/10/stacy-kuykendall-press-confere.html
A demonstration of the dishonesty of the New Yorker article on this case is available at this link:
http://www.crimeandconsequences.com/crimblog/2009/10/willinghams-last-words.html