Prosecutor’s Neglect Resulting in Wrongful Execution Is Subject of Disciplinary Inquiry


The State Bar of Texas has filed a disciplinary petition against the county prosecutor whose misconduct likely caused the State of Texas to wrongfully execute Cameron Todd Willingham in 2004.

The Marshall Project reported that the petition accused former Navarro County prosecutor John H. Jackson of obstruction of justice, making false statements, and concealing evidence favorable to the defense. In a petition filed on March 5, bar investigators charge that “[b]efore, during, and after the 1992 trial, [Jackson] knew of the existence of evidence that tended to negate the guilt of Willingham and failed to disclose that evidence to defense counsel.”

Jackson repeatedly provided assistance to jailhouse informant Johnny Webb in exchange for his testimony that Mr. Willingham had confessed the murders to him in jail, which Webb has recanted. He told reporters that Jackson coerced him to lie, threatened him with a long prison term for a robbery he’d committed but promised to reduce his sentence if he testified against Mr. 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 Webb, who told the jury 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.

Last July, the Innocence Project filed a grievance with the Texas bar accusing Jackson of unethical conduct. The bar began a preliminary inquiry into that complaint last summer, and its findings are the basis for this month’s disciplinary petition. Jackson not only failed to disclose to the defense details about the favorable treatment he obtained for Webb, the petition asserts, but also falsely told the trial court he had no evidence favorable to Mr. Willingham.

The petition accuses Jackson of violating several sections of the Texas Disciplinary Rules of Professional Conduct and seeks that he “be disciplined as the facts shall warrant.” Such discipline could range from no discipline to disbarment.

Jackson is the third Texas prosecutor recently accused of concealing evidence, making false statements and obstructing justice. In 2013, Williamson County District Judge Ken Anderson resigned as a judge and a lawyer and was sentenced to 10 days in jail for contempt of court for failing to disclose exculpatory evidence in the case of Michael Morton, who served 25 years in prison before being exonerated.

Last year, the State Bar filed a disciplinary complaint alleging that Charles Sebesta withheld exculpatory evidence during his prosecution of Anthony Graves and used perjured testimony to obtain Graves’s conviction. Graves was exonerated and released from death row in 2010.