News 02.28.14

New Evidence Emerges in Texas Wrongful Execution Case

The Innocence Project has filed new documents with the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles in its posthumous pardon petition for Cameron Todd Willingham, pointing to new evidence that strongly suggests that a jail house informant involved in the case received a deal from the then-Navarro County District Attorney John Jackson in exchange for his testimony. This new evidence also suggests that Jackson, who had since become a district court judge, deceived the Board of Pardons and Paroles and the Navarro County District Attorney’s Office about the existence of the deal. Willingham’s life would have almost certainly have been spared had the board and district attorney’s office known about it.

 

In 1992, Willingham was convicted of intentionally setting fire to his Texas home, killing his three young daughters. He was found guilty and sentenced to death based on the testimony of two fire examiners who said that there was evidence that the fire had been intentionally set, and on the testimony of a jailhouse informant, Johnny Webb, who claimed that Willingham had confessed to committing crime. Webb recanted prior to Willingham’s execution, stating that he had been forced by John Jackson, the then-district attorney, to provide false testimony in exchange for favorable treatment in the form of a reduced robbery charge in his own criminal case. Willingham’s lawyer was never told of Webb’s recantation. Willingham was executed on February 17, 2004.

 

Subsequent to the trial, Jackson made repeated representations that Webb did not receive any favorable treatment in exchange for his testimony, but the Innocence Project recently found a handwritten note on the cover of the district attorney’s file on the robbery charges pending against Webb that stated that the charge should be reduced to the lesser offense of robbery in the second degree “based on coop in Willingham.” Evidence also shows that Jackson wrote to the Board of Pardons and Paroles on two occasions urging the board to grant Webb early parole.

 

In the weeks leading up to Willingham’s execution, his lawyers sought a 90-day reprieve from the Board of Pardons and Paroles to investigate whether Webb testified against Willingham in exchange for favorable treatment. Jackson, a district court judge at this point, wrote the board a letter on his judicial letterhead, opposing the reprieve. Again, he insisted that he didn’t offer Webb any special consideration for his cooperation.

 

Webb’s false testimony followed Willingham to his death. Just days before Willingham was executed, his attorneys sent Governor Rick Perry and the court a report from Gerald Hurst, a nationally recognized arson expert, saying that Willingham’s conviction was based on erroneous forensic analysis. Responding to this last minute request for a stay, Bill Price, with the Navarro County District Attorney’s office, dismissed this report, claiming that it was irrelevant given the testimony of Webb, who received no deal in exchange for his testimony.

 

“It’s astonishing that 10 years after Todd Willingham was executed, we are still uncovering evidence showing what a grave injustice this case represents,” said Co-Director of the Innocence Project Barry Scheck.“The Texas clemency system is severely broken and must be fixed. The Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles can begin that process by conducting a thorough investigation into how the state allowed this execution to go forward in the face of so much evidence pointing to Mr. Willingham’s innocence.”

 

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