In the early hours of June 11, 1986, a house fire in Iraan, Texas, killed 24-year-old Elizabeth Belue and 25-year-old Gail Allison. The house was owned by Cheryl and Michael Robinson, and the night before, Belue and Allison had been up late drinking with the Robinsons and two men who were staying with them at the time, cousins Ernest Ray Willis and Bill Willis. At some point, the Robinsons had a violent quarrel outside the house and were arrested, but the guests remained and eventually went to sleep. When the house began to burn, only the Willises made it outside alive.
The sheriff investigating the fire suspected that it had been set intentionally, and arson experts seemed to confirm this suspicion, claiming to find “pour patterns” on the floor – charred marks said to have been left by a flammable liquid that had been poured inside the house. Ernest Ray Willis, who was the first out of the house and the least injured, became the leading suspect. There was no physical evidence that he had set the house on fire, and no apparent motive – Willis suffered from chronic back pain that made it difficult to work, and the Robinsons had offered him a place to stay in exchange for fixing their car. He claimed that the fire woke him at about 4:00 a.m., and that he ran through the house trying to wake the others before the flames forced him outside, where he began to break windows to create escape routes. Bill Willis said he had awakened at around 3:30 a.m. and smelled something burning, but when he could not find the source, he went back to sleep.
Ernest Ray Willis was arrested on October 22, 1986, and charged with capital murder. At trial, the prosecution called him a “cold-hearted” murderer, a “monster,” an “animal,” and a “satanic demon.” The defense attorney failed to object to these descriptions, and called no character witnesses – including several who could have testified that Willis had once saved a boy from drowning. Willis appeared emotionless and extremely dazed throughout the trial, which seemed to reinforce the prosecution’s claim that he was a remorseless killer. He was convicted on August 4, 1987, and sentenced to death. The conviction was upheld by the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals in 1989, and in 1990, the U.S. Supreme Court denied a petition for a writ of certiorari.
In prison, letter writing was a source of comfort for Willis, and he began to correspond with the mother of a mentally ill inmate who would not communicate with his family. Grateful for the updates on her son, the inmate’s mother sent copies of Willis’s letters to the law firm of Latham & Watkins, and in 1992, a team of attorneys agreed to take on his case pro bono.
In their investigation, the new attorneys found that in the months leading up to the trial, the state began to give Willis high doses of anti-psychotic drugs along with his usual pain medication, without telling him and despite the fact that he displayed no signs of psychosis; it was these drugs that caused his dazed, expressionless appearance at trial. Investigation also uncovered a psychological evaluation that had never been turned over to the defense, finding no evidence that Willis would pose a future threat to society. This assessment would likely have spared him from the death penalty at the sentencing phase of his trial. Finally, attorneys discovered that after Willis’s conviction, another death row inmate who had been charged with arson confessed to a psychologist that he had burned down the Robinson’s home because of a grudge he held against Bill Willis. Though there were several holes in this story, this confession cast further doubt on Willis’s guilt.
Based on this new evidence, an appellate court granted Willis’s petition for habeas corpus, but it was then rejected by the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals in 2000. Attorneys then filed a federal habeas corpus petition, which was granted in 2004.
In response, a new Pecos County District Attorney began to review the case himself. He hired arson experts, who found that the previous experts had been mistaken: there was in fact no evidence that the house had been set on fire intentionally. The house had electrical problems, which may have caused the fire; ultimately, these experts concluded that the cause of the fire was “undetermined.” As a result of this evaluation, the District Attorney moved to dismiss the charges, and on October 5, 2004, Willis was released from prison. In 2005, Willis was awarded $429,000 in state compensation plus a monthly annuity of $9,965.
- Alexandra Gross