Many people believe that Cameron Todd Willingham, convicted of murdering his three young daughters by setting their house on fire, was an innocent man when he was executed by lethal injection in 2004.
Since his death, the Texas Forensic Science Commission has ruled that testimony declaring the fire the result of arson was based on faulty science. In fact, even before Willingham was killed, an arson investigation specialist said the conclusion was based on bad science.
If there was no arson, there was no murder. If there was no murder, an innocent man was convicted and executed.
Then last year the Innocence Project, which investigates claims of wrongful convictions, filed a petition saying there was evidence suggesting possible false testimony and prosecutorial misconduct during Willingham’s trial.
An extensive report this week by The Washington Post (“Fresh doubts over a Texas execution”) details an alarming discovery about the primary witness in the case and the disturbing relationship between him, the prosecutor and an influential Corsicana rancher.
It speaks to false testimony, prosecutorial misdeeds, an attempt to cover up a recantation of sworn testimony and, of course, Willingham’s innocence.
Aside from the now-discredited forensic evidence, the most damaging testimony against Willingham came from a jailhouse informant named Johnny E. Webb, whom the Post article described as “a skinny, 22-year-old drug addict in January 1992 when he met Willingham in the Navarro County Jail.”
The newspaper used letters, court filings and Webb’s interviews with the Innocence Project almost 22 years after he testified against Willingham to describe prosecutor John H. Jackson’s numerous contacts with Webb.
Jackson worked to have Webb’s charges of aggravated robbery lessened and his sentence reduced and to have him reassigned from the penitentiary back to the Navarro County Jail — this after Jackson was elected judge.
The report also says that a wealthy rancher, Charles S. Pearce Jr., a Jackson supporter, deposited large sums of money on Webb’s prison commissary account and became a major benefactor after Webb was released from prison, giving him a $10,000 cashier’s check when he was paroled in 1998 and paying his $10,000 tuition for a commercial diving and underwater welding school.
But perhaps most damning is that four years before Willingham was executed, Webb “sent a formal motion to recant to the Navarro County District Attorney’s Office that was forwarded to Jackson, but never put in Willingham’s file or shared with his lawyers,” the Post reported.
“Webb said he was ‘made to Lie,’ and that Willingham ‘is innocent of all charges,’” the newspaper said.
During Webb’s testimony at the trial, Jackson asked him, “Johnny, have I ever promised you anything in return for your testimony in this case?”
Webb answered, “You haven’t.”
Jackson has said he worked to get Webb an early release because he was being threatened in prison.
The Innocence Project has filed a grievance with the State Bar of Texas saying Jackson lied about his efforts to get a lighter sentence for his star witness and that he and Pearce tried to conceal Webb’s attempts to recant his testimony.
This case needs to be investigated by the State Bar. It most likely should be referred to a court of inquiry, as was done last year in the case of former Williamson County District Attorney and Judge Ken Anderson, who was charged with prosecutorial misconduct for the wrongful conviction of another man. Anderson was convicted on a contempt of court charge and was sentenced to 10 days in jail.
The Texas Board of Pardons and Parole should reconsider a petition to grant Willingham a posthumous pardon, for it seems pretty obvious that he was wrongfully convicted.
Texas executed an innocent man.