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On death row 17 years, Texas inmate released

DA says fatal fire may have been an accident

HUNTSVILLE, Texas -- A man who spent 17 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 that 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. ''Once Texas gets you, they don't want to let you go. I walk out of here an innocent man."

Willis said he was not sure where he and his wife would live, though they said it would not be in Texas.

Earlier this year, a judge raised troubling questions about Willis's 1987 conviction on a murder-arson charge. That prompted 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 was not caused by arson, the analysis found. Most likely, White said, the fire was caused by an electrical problem, a broken ceiling fan, or a faulty outlet in the living room.

''He simply did not do the crime," said White, whose predecessors took Willis to trial. ''I'm sorry this man was on death row for so long and that there were so many lost years."

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

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 couldn't find any trace of evidence that this was arson," Hurst said. ''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, 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.

During his trial, authorities say today, Willis was given large amounts of antipsychotic medication, which left him in a trance. Prosecutors seized on his mental condition, telling the jury that he was cold-hearted, a ''satanic demon." His court-appointed lawyers offered jurors little argument that they should spare his life.

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