A man who spent 17 of his 59 years on death row in Texas was abruptly released Wednesday after prosecutors conceded that there was 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 wed 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, who was described to jurors as a “satanic demon” by prosecutors, said he wasn’t sure where he and his wife would live, though they were quick to say it wouldn’t be in Texas.
Earlier this year, a judge raised troubling questions about Willis’ 1987 conviction on a murder-arson charge. That prompted Pecos County Dist. Atty. 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 ordering Willis’ release on Tuesday.
Dr. Gerald Hurst, the Austin, Texas-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. It was a joke. It kind of blew me away.”
In the summer of 1986, Willis, then 40 years old, was a hard-driving, hard-drinking, itinerant oilfield roughneck. He had recently connected with a cousin, Billy Willis, and the two were staying with friends at a house in tiny Iraan, Texas, which today has a population of 1,219 and was then even smaller.
The morning of June 11, following a boisterous party at the house, flames erupted. The Willis cousins escaped, but the fire killed Elizabeth Grace Belue, 24, and Gail Joe Allison, 25. Investigators were mystified at first, but officers who responded to the fire soon reported that Ernest Willis had acted strange and distant outside the house.
Soon, the investigators found what they believed to be “pour patterns” on the floor of the house -- traces of some sort of accelerant that they believed had been used to start the fire. Willis had reported that after attempting to wake his housemates he had run from the burning house yelling “Fire!” But authorities determined that the soles of his feet showed no evidence of burning.
A warrant was issued for his arrest. He turned himself in and a grand jury -- to the surprise of law enforcement officers who had conceded that they didn’t have much of a case -- indicted him on murder-arson charges.
During his trial, authorities say today, Willis was given large amounts of antipsychotic medication, which left him in a trance of sorts. Prosecutors seized on his mental condition, telling the jury that he was coldhearted, a “satanic demon.” His court-appointed lawyers offered jurors little argument that they should spare his life, and they didn’t.
Hurst discovered that the “pour patterns” used as primary evidence at the time were actually not evidence that an accelerant had been used to torch the house. Since the mid-1980s, he said, analysts have made vast improvements in arson investigations, and they have discovered that a phenomenon known as “flashover burning” can leave the same patterns on the floor as an accelerant.
It happens, he said, at the moment that temperatures inside a building suddenly spike. Today, the phenomenon would be recognized instantly by investigators, Hurst said. Willis didn’t have any burn marks his soles because the fire hadn’t burned the floor of the house by the time he ran out, Hurst said.
“All of their indicators [that it was arson] are basically old wives’ tales by today’s standards,” Hurst said. “Those were the bad old days of fire investigation, and it’s just really unfortunate that he wound up on death row because of it.”
White, meanwhile, discovered a number of troubling details.
Willis, it turned out, left his prized eelskin boots inside the house, suggesting, White said, that he had to run out quickly. Billy Willis, the cousin, woke up earlier that night and smelled something burning. Unable to find the source, he went back to sleep. The cousins were close, White said, and Ernest Willis surely would have woken Billy before setting the house ablaze. Instead, White said, Billy Willis only survived the fire by “jumping out the window naked.”
Willis’ release is the latest in a series of developments that death penalty opponents here find troubling. Texas is responsible for about a third of the nation’s executions.
And it came a day after 30-year-old Edward Green III was put to death in Texas, despite the efforts of capital punishment supporters and opponents to delay his execution while newly discovered evidence could be reviewed. The Houston Police Department disclosed in August that 280 boxes of lost evidence involving thousands of cases had been found in a property room.
Gov. Rick Perry, who did not return phone calls seeking comment Wednesday, declined to intervene in that case and has rejected calls for a death penalty moratorium. Former Texas Gov. Mark White is among those who asked Perry to stop executions until all of the misplaced evidence could be cataloged.
To death penalty opponents, Willis has quickly become another symbol of what they call a flawed capital punishment system in Texas.
“The system is broken. And it has to be repaired,” said Steve Hall, director of StandDown Texas, an Austin nonprofit that is among those fighting for a moratorium on executions.