Further investigation needed in case of executed man

Posted Tuesday, Oct. 01, 2013  comments  Print Reprints

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sanders Nothing can be done to change Cameron Todd Willingham’s fate.

He died in the Texas death chamber Feb. 17, 2004, executed for the deaths of his three young daughters, who perished in a fire at their Corsicana home in 1991.

Even if he were innocent, as many now believe he was, nothing we can do will bring him back.

But that shouldn’t prevent us from doing everything we can to learn the truth surrounding the case that led to his conviction and subsequent death sentence.

Justice demands it.

Willingham maintained his innocence until he died. The Texas Forensic Science Commission since has investigated the case and found that testimony pointing to arson was based on faulty science. Even before he was killed, the state had been given a report from a renowned arson expert that said erroneous forensic analysis was the basis for Willingham’s conviction.

No one likes the thought of an innocent man being executed, but mounting evidence obtained by a national organization that investigates wrongful convictions strongly points to that possibility. The Innocence Project filed a petition Friday saying evidence suggests possible false testimony and prosecutorial misconduct during Willingham’s trial.

Willingham’s family is calling on the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles to investigate the case and for the state to pardon him posthumously.

Joining the family and Innocence Project representatives at a state Capitol news conference Friday was Michael Morton, who spent 25 years in prison for a crime he didn’t commit.

A special court of inquiry found that the Williamson County prosecutor in Morton’s case, Ken Anderson, withheld evidence that could have proved his innocence. Anderson was charged with criminal contempt of court, tampering with evidence and tampering with government records.

Later appointed to a district court bench by Gov. Rick Perry, Anderson resigned his judgeship Sept. 24 as he prepares to face trial on the misconduct charges.

Although Perry has posthumously pardoned one wrongly convicted man — Fort Worth’s Timothy Cole, who died in prison while serving time for a rape he did not commit — it will be difficult for him to do the same for Willingham, as that would be admitting an innocent man was executed on his watch.

But he should consider doing exactly that if the pardons and paroles board recommends it, something they can only do after looking at the new evidence from the Innocence Project.

Prosecutors in the case relied on testimony from a jailhouse informant to connect Willingham to the fire. Johnny Webb, in jail on charges of aggravated robbery, testified that Willingham confessed to him that he had committed the crime.

In 2000, four years before Willingham’s execution, Webb recanted that statement in a motion to a judge, the same person who had been the lead prosecutor in the case. He said he “was forced to testify against Willingham by the D.A.s [sic] office and other officials. I was made to lie,” according to a news release from the Innocence Project.

Although the district attorney’s office knew of the recantation, no one representing Willingham was made aware of it. The Innocence Project said it also has evidence that the prosecutor and other Navarro County authorities tried to help Webb get a reduced sentence in exchange for his testimony.

The former prosecutor denies any misconduct in the case, according to the Texas Tribune.

The new allegations must be investigated.

“There are only two mistakes one can make on the road to truth: not going all the way and not starting,” said Barry Scheck, co-director of the Innocence Project. “The reason an investigation is so critical in this case isn’t to affix blame on Gov. Perry or any one individual. Everyone has responsibility if not for making error then for failing to detect them.”

He’s right. So, let’s find the whole truth then do the right thing.

Bob Ray Sanders' column appears Sundays and Wednesdays. 817-390-7775 Twitter: @BobRaySanders

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