It's Never Too Late to Clear the Name of an Innocent Loved One Executed. We Know First Hand | Opinion

We are members of a club that should never have any members. We are the family of a man who was wrongfully convicted of murder and executed despite clear and convincing evidence of his innocence. We fear that April Alley, Sedley Alley's daughter, may also be a member of this terrible club.

Our son and cousin, Cameron Todd Willingham, was convicted of killing his three baby girls by arson. His conviction rested on junk science and a jailhouse informant. In the days before Todd's execution in February 2004, a nationally recognized arson expert, Dr. Gerald Hurst, submitted a detailed report to Governor Rick Perry and Texas courts showing that the arson evidence was false. It was based on false assumptions that had been discredited a decade earlier. Todd didn't spread accelerant around his house and start a fire. No chemical evidence of accelerant was found in the debris.

The fire was accidental—there was no crime at all. Governor Perry and the Texas courts, to our dismay, ignored this finding which has since been confirmed many times over by independent experts and eventually the Texas Forensic Science Commission. A number of arson convictions have been overturned.

After Todd's conviction, the District Attorney illegally reduced the sentence of the jailhouse informant who falsely testified that Todd confessed to him about starting the fire by spreading accelerant and hid that fact, and the informant's efforts to recant, from Todd's lawyers. Todd was only 36 when Texas took his life by lethal injection and shattered the Willingham family forever.

We promised Todd that we'd never stop fighting to clear his name. April Alley is trying to do the same for her dad.

Sedley Alley was convicted of the 1985 rape and murder of Marine Lance Corporal Suzanne Marie Collins. It was a gruesome crime with many items of evidence containing DNA. Just before Mr. Alley's execution in 2006, at the request of the Innocence Project, the Tennessee Board of Parole recommended that Governor Phil Bredesen order DNA testing that could exclude Mr. Alley and potentially identify the person who committed this awful crime. Instead of exercising his power to order testing, Governor Bredesen directed Mr. Alley's lawyers to present their request to the courts.

The courts refused Mr. Alley's request. No one can imagine the anger and frustration that the Alley family must have felt, knowing that government officials had critical scientific evidence in their possession and they looked the other way -- except the Willingham family, because we experienced the same nightmare. April watched her father's execution. His last words were: “I love you, April. Be good and stay strong.”

Incredibly, the Tennessee Supreme Court decided five years after Mr. Alley's execution that the decision to deny testing was wrong. In 2011, the state's highest court made it clear that post-conviction DNA testing was intended to allow convicted people, like Mr. Alley, to prove their innocence and, if possible, find the person who committed the crime through a database “hit.” If Sedley Alley were alive today, his request for DNA testing would be granted.

April Alley, as the executor of her father's estate, has now petitioned the court in Memphis for the DNA testing that should have been done before her father's execution. She has also requested that the Governor of Tennessee order testing, an authority that he possesses. No one knows what the results will show. As April herself has said, she just wants to know the truth. And if her father did not commit this horrible murder, she wants to know who did.

These kinds of cases are more common than people realize. Since 1973, 165 innocent people have been exonerated and freed from death row. There is strong evidence that many people who have been executed or died while on death row were innocent, including Ruben Cantu, Carlos DeLuna, Claude Jones, Frank Lee Smith, and others.

Nothing can bring back these men, just like nothing can bring back Todd. Even so, the search for the truth must go on so that terrible mistakes don't keep happening. In Mr. Alley's case, the Governor of Tennessee should order DNA testing pursuant to his power to grant posthumous pardons. The courts should agree to DNA testing, as well. And the Shelby County District Attorney should join in the search for the truth. To fair-minded people in Tennessee and across the nation, testing the DNA is just common sense.

Eugenia Willingham was the stepmother of Cameron Todd Willingham. Patricia Willingham Cox was his cousin. A movie about the Willingham case, “Trial by Fire,” opens in theaters nationwide on May 17th.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own.​​​​​