Newly Formed Marshall Project Details New Evidence of Prosecutorial Misconduct Resulting in Likely Wrongful Execution of Cameron Todd Willingham
Story Cites Grievance Urging Discipline for Prosecutor John Jackson, Who New Evidence Shows, Took Extraordinary Steps to Help Jailhouse Informant Johnny Webb Who Now Claims He Was Recruited, Instructed on How to Testify and Promised a Deal by Jackson
The Marshall Project, broke a story
in the Washington Post today revealing new allegations of prosecutorial misconduct that likely caused Texas to wrongly execute Cameron Todd Willingham. The story, written by Maurice Possley, who covered Willingham’s case as a reporter for the Chicago Tribune, reveals that on behalf of Willingham’s surviving relatives, the Innocence Project filed a detailed grievance with the Chief Disciplinary Counsel of the State Bar of Texas urging disciplinary action against former Willingham prosecutor John Jackson. The grievance reveals newly discovered evidence that strongly suggests ethical and possible criminal misconduct by Jackson in covering up a deal with jailhouse informant Johnny Webb, who testified that Willingham, while in jail, confessed to the arson murder of his three children. This supposed confession became indispensable evidence on the eve of Willingham’s execution in 2004 when an expert report was filed with courts exposing the arson evidence against Willingham as false. Current and former Navarro County prosecutors were not aware that Jackson had reduced Webb’s conviction for Robbery in the First Degree to Robbery in the Second Degree based on cooperation in the Willingham case. If that fact had not been hidden by Jackson prior to the execution, the prosecutor assigned to the case now says he would have disclosed it.
Relying on newly discovered court records, documents from the Navarro County District Attorney’s files, letters recently obtained from Webb as well as correspondence and affidavits by Jackson himself, the grievance alleges that Jackson illegally and unethically made an undisclosed deal with Webb to reduce his robbery in the First Degree Conviction to Robbery in the Second Degree and has continued to cover it up to this day. At Willingham’s trial, Webb, who claimed that Willingham confessed to him, swore he was not offered any incentives for his testimony and Jackson explicitly told Webb in open court, “As a matter of fact, I told you there is nothing I can do for you.”
“This grievance paints a deeply disturbing picture of a prosecutor who would stop at nothing to defend a conviction that was riddled with errors from the start,” said Texas attorney Gerry Goldstein. “Even if you believe, as we do, that Mr. Jackson was really convinced that Todd Willingham intentionally set the fire that killed his daughters, prosecutors have to be held accountable for violating the law and ethical rules or more innocent people will be put to death by our state.”
On October 12, 1992, three months after Webb testified to pleading guilty to Robbery in the First Degree, and just prior to Webb being sent to state prison, Jackson directed Navarro County clerks to falsely tell the Texas Department of Correction that Webb was only convicted of Robbery in the Second Degree, thereby making Webb eligible for early parole.
Despite emphatically telling Webb in front of the Willingham jury that there was “nothing I can do for you” to help Webb during his incarceration, especially when it came to protection from retaliation for snitching, Jackson took immediate and extraordinary steps with prison officials to ensure, as Jackson put it, Webb’s “continued co-operation” including repeated letters and phone calls asking for special placement and Webb’s early release.
Working through his wealthy friend, a local businessman who provided financial benefits to Webb (including buying Webb a $7,250 truck and paying his tuition for an expensive diving program that would have helped him find work in the oil industry), Jackson was personally involved in trying to keep Webb from “going public” about the Willingham case and “promises” Webb claimed were made in return for his cooperation.
Jackson took steps, both as a prosecutor and subsequently as a judge, to keep documents out of public court records that would reveal his undisclosed deal with Webb, and his own direct knowledge of Webb’s threats to recant.
On October 4, 2010, Jackson provided the Navarro County District Attorney Lowell Thompson a misleading affidavit in connection with the Court of Inquiry brought by Willingham’s surviving relatives that includes the assertion Webb didn’t receive any benefits in exchange of his testimony.
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