The newly formed criminal justice journalism organization The Marshall Project reported this week on new allegations of prosecutorial misconduct that likely caused the State of Texas to wrongfully execute Cameron Todd Willingham.
Cameron Willingham was convicted of the capital murder of his three young children, who died in a house fire just before Christmas in 1991. Even after his hair had caught on fire, Mr. Willingham had to be restrained, and ultimately handcuffed, to keep him from going back into the burning house to rescue his daughters.
At trial in 1992, the State’s case rested on two main pillars: testimony from arson investigators who said the fire was intentionally set, and testimony from Johnny Webb, who told the jury that Mr. Willingham had confessed to him while the two were in jail. Webb, who had been jailed for robbing a woman at knifepoint, testified that he was not promised anything in return for his testimony against Mr. Willingham.
Mr. Willingham maintained his innocence but was convicted and sentenced to death. Despite new scientific evidence showing the fire was an accident and debunking the “junk science” the State presented at trial, Governor Rick Perry refused to stay Mr. Willingham’s execution. Texas executed him in 2004, and state officials have worked ever since to undermine the Forensic Science Commission, which agreed that the arson testimony was flawed.
Published in the Washington Post on Monday, the Marshall Project’s story reveals that prosecutor John Jackson made an undisclosed deal with Johnny Webb in exchange for his testimony against Mr. Willingham. Newly discovered court records, documents from the Navarro County District Attorney’s files, and correspondence show that Jackson secretly reduced Webb’s first-degree robbery conviction to second-degree robbery and, when Webb later threatened to recant his testimony, Jackson arranged special treatment and financial support and sought to secure his early release from prison.
In recent taped interviews, Webb said he testified after Jackson showed him pictures of the little girls’ bodies and told him that Mr. Willingham was guilty. “The perks — they was willing to do anything to help me,” Webb explained. “No one has ever done that, so why wouldn’t I help them?” The truth was, Webb said, Willingham “never told me nothing.”
On behalf of Mr. Willingham’s family, the Innocence Project on July 25 filed a grievance with the State Bar of Texas and called for a full investigation that could result in disbarment or even criminal prosecution. Co-Director Barry Scheck said “there is reason to believe that the execution would have never gone forward, and Willingham would be alive today, if John Jackson had played by the rules.”
Named for Thurgood Marshall, the Marshall Project is a nonprofit news organization dedicated to in-depth reporting and commentary about criminal justice. EJI Director Bryan Stevenson serves on the advisory board. Using conventional investigative reporting and opinion writing, as well as interactive graphics, immersive digital stories, and short video documentaries, the project aims to launch a national conversation about criminal justice reform.