October 5, 2010
(Reuters) -- A state district judge will hold a hearing next week to determine whether Texas wrongfully executed a man in 2004 for the arson murders of his three young daughters.
Not one of the more than 1,200 U.S. executions that have taken place since a judicial ban was lifted in 1976 has been declared wrongful by a judge, so the hearing into the case of Cameron Todd Willingham will be keenly watched.
The case could be politically explosive because Willingham was put to death under the watch of Texas Gov. Rick Perry, a tough-on-crime Republican who is running for re-election in November and whose handling of the case has been criticized.
Dozens of death row inmates have been exonerated in recent years, many because of DNA testing and all before they were put to death. Legal experts say it is highly likely that an innocent person has been executed, and Willingham is widely viewed as the most probable case. . .
The ultimate legal implications of an execution being declared wrongful by a judge are unclear.
"This is uncharted legal territory because we normally don't have courts looking into whether somebody was wrongfully executed," said Jeff Bellin, a law professor at Southern Methodist University in Dallas.
Willingham was executed for the 1991 murders of his three children, who died in a fire in their home in the northeast Texas town of Corsicana. Willingham insisted he was innocent.
The case gained national prominence after leading experts concluded that the techniques used to determine that the fire was set were based on flawed science.
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