I’ve been posting lately about a legal case that could end up being the first to uphold conclusively, that an innocent man was executed by the State, for a crime he didn’t do. Cameron Todd Willingham, was executed using a lethal injection by the State of Texas in 2004. The United States Supreme Court upheld the death penalty in 2006, with Justice Antonin Scalia declaring that death penalty opponents could not cite “a single case” in which it was clear that a person was executed for a crime they did not commit. But there is strong evidence, suggesting Willingham could be that single case, the judge was talking about. In previous posts on this topic, I deconstructed the forensic evidence against Willingham and demonstrated how it was hopelessly flawed and based on old wives tales rather than scientific fact.
Here is a brief summary of the case: On December 23, 1991, a fire destroyed the Willingham family home in Corsicana, Texas. The blaze claimed the lives of Willingham’s three daughters: Amber Louisel, who was two, along with one-year-old twins Karmon Diane and Kameron Marie. Willingham, at the time, was a 23-year-old unemployed motor mechanic. He said he woke from a nap, to discover the house filled with smoke. He was unable to find the sleeping children before he managed to escape the flames with minor burns.The so-called expert arson investigators, relied on by the prosecution, concluded that Willingham set fire to a trail of accelerant he laid from the front door of the house, to the children’s bedroom. His motive was to cover up allegations that he abused his children. Allegations, I might add, without merit or evidence.
For more than 20 years, the prosecutor, who persuaded a jury to convict Cameron Todd Willingham, of murdering his three young daughters, has maintained authorities made no deals to secure the testimony of a jailhouse informer, who told jurors that Willingham confessed to the crime in prison.
Those officials continued to defend the account of that informer, Johnny E. Webb. But now new evidence is reviving claims that Willingham was innocent. In taped interviews, Webb, who has previously both recanted and affirmed his testimony, now gives a detailed account of how he lied on the witness stand in return for efforts to get him favourable treatment by the prosecutor. Now, you have to be extremely careful about assessing the credibility of a witness who changes his story more than once. But there is evidence suggesting that Prosecutor John H. Jackson, directly intervened to reduce Webb’s prison sentence for robbery and to arrange for thousands of dollars to be given to the prisoner by a wealthy Corsicana rancher in return for his testimony against Willingham. Newly uncovered letters and court files show that Jackson worked diligently for Webb to receive a lesser sentence and to coordinate with the millionaire rancher, Charles S. Pearce Jr., to provide financial support.
“Mr. Pierce and I visit on a regular basis concerning your problems,” Jackson wrote to Webb in August 2000, eight years after the trial, when his former witness threatened to recant his testimony. “We worked for a long time on a number of different levels, including the Governor’s Office, to get you released early in the robbery case. . . . Please understand that I am not indifferent or insensitive to your difficulties.”
The letters and documents expose a determined effort by prosecutor Jackson to change Webb’s conviction, get him speedy parole, clemency and relocate him from a tough state prison to his hometown jail. Many lawyers are of the opinion that had this favourable treatment been revealed before his execution, there were legal grounds for Willingham to seek a new trial.
Here is a summary of the sequence of events:
Johnny E. Webb is arrested on robbery charges. After talking to Willingham at the county jail, Webb says he was recruited by prosecutor Jackson, to testify against Willingham. Webb agrees and pleads guilty to the lesser charge of first-degree aggravated robbery.
Webb testifies at the Willingham trial that Cameron Todd Willingham confessed to murdering his daughters. Here is the interesting bit. Jackson emphasizes that he made no deal with Webb in return for his testimony. Jackson tells jurors the case rests on two pillars: the arson evidence and Webb’s testimony. The jury convicts Willingham and votes for the death penalty
Jackson asks the Texas Board of Pardons and Parole to grant Webb an early parole hearing and to release him immediately.
In documents recently released, Jackson then writes to Webb on his personal stationery stating that he has been working on Webb’s behalf.
Jackson described the forensic evidence and Webb’s testimony as the foundations of his case, either of which he claimed was enough to convict Willingham. More recently, Jackson acknowledged that one of his foundation pillars had already crumbled but claimed that the trial presented “overwhelming evidence of guilt completely independent of the undeniably flawed forensic report.”
But the letters and court files show that Webb threatened to renounce his testimony against Willingham on at least two prior occasions. In 2000, he sent a formal motion to recant his testimony to the Navarro County District Attorney’s Office that was forwarded to Jackson, but never put in Willingham’s court file or shared with his lawyers.
Jackson, was elected as a Navarro County judge in November 1996 and retired from the bench in 2012. He claims he was just going out of his way to help Webb. But in a recent interview Jackson claimed he did so because he thought Webb was threatened by other inmates for cooperating with the prosecution. He described allegations that he coaxed false testimony from Webb as a “complete fabrication.”
Webb’s latest allegations could have implications for the political ambitions of Texas governor, Rick Perry, a strong supporter of the death penalty and a possible Republican presidential candidate.
In 2004, Perry refused an application for a temporary stay of Willingham’s execution despite the report of a leading forensic expert strongly disputing the finding of arson by a Texas deputy fire marshal. Perry’s administration is also accused of repeatedly undermining the authority of a state Forensic Science Commission, which agreed that the arson finding that convicted Willingham, had relied on flawed analysis. Defending his handling of the case in 2009, the State Governor claimed Willingham “was a monster.”
Johnny Webb was a 22-year-old drug addict when he met Willingham in the Navarro County Jail, that holds about 125 prisoners on any given day. Willingham had just been arrested. Webb, had a long list of prior convictions when he was jailed for robbing a woman at knifepoint. Webb admitted he was stealing to support a drug and alcohol habit. In two taped interviews with the Innocence Project, conducted almost 22 years after his trial testimony, Webb described how the Navarro County sheriff, removed him out of his cell after he had spoken briefly with Willingham. The Sherrif was desperate to know what they talked about.
Webb said the Sherrif, and then Jackson, urged him to speak again with Willingham about the fire to see if he would incriminate himself. Webb claimed, he was taken repeatedly from jail to Jackson’s office in the courthouse, where the prosecutor showed him photographs of the fire scene that included the bodies of the little girls.
“I was in his office three or four times and he laid them pictures out in front of me and said, ‘Johnny, what do you think about that?’” Webb said. “That could be your child. This dude is guilty.”
Webb, was facing the prospect of a lengthy sentence for his crime. He said he asked Jackson, “What’s going to be my deal?” and Jackson allegedly replied, “If you help me, that robbery will disappear . . . even if you’re convicted now, I can get it off of you later.”
Now, it should be pointed out that there is nothing unusual about prosecutors offering informants lenient treatment, but they are obliged to present testimony they believe to be true and to disclose any deals before a trial so that those witnesses can be cross examined.
“He says, ‘Your story doesn’t have to match exactly’,” Webb said. “He says, ‘I want you to just say he put fires in the corners. I need you to be able to say that so we can convict him, otherwise we’re going to have a murderer running our streets.”
Webb told Jackson he wanted to turn his life around and become a properly employed, law abiding citizen. He claims he was told that could be arranged. In the taped interviews, Webb said, “He says, ‘Look, we can get Chuck Pearce ( the millionaire rancher] to help you with anything you need. He’s already there to help you.’ ”
“He had me believing 100 percent this dude was guilty — that’s why I testified,” Webb said. “The perks — they was willing to do anything to help me. No one has ever done that, so why wouldn’t I help them?”
Five months later, in August 1992, Webb was the first witness called by Jackson to testify for the prosecution at Willingham’s trial. Webb told the jury that Willingham, after repeatedly saying the fire was an accident, then confessed to him while they were speaking through a food slot in Willingham’s cell door.
Webb said Willingham told him he squirted lighter fluid around the home and set it on fire. Webb said Willingham and his wife, Stacy, decided to kill the girls to cover up Stacy’s physical abuse of one of the children. However, post mortems revealed no injuries to the girls other than those suffered in the fire. Forensic experts later discredited evidence at the trial that an accelerant was used to start the fire.
Jackson said that Webb was testifying at great personal risk. “My life has been threatened as well as my family’s life,” Webb said on the stand. “And if I make it to the penitentiary, then I’m going to be in deep trouble.”
Jackson ended Webb’s testimony by asking, “Johnny, have I ever promised you anything in return for your testimony in this case?”
“No, sir,” Webb replied. “You haven’t.”
“As a matter of fact, I told you there is nothing I can do for you,” Jackson said.
“You said there was nothing no one can do for me,” Webb said.
Willingham’s defense was pathetic. His lawyers called only one witness, a babysitter who said Willingham loved his daughters. The trial lasted three days. On Aug. 20, 1992, the jury convicted Willingham of the murders of his children and the following day, voted to sentence him to death.
Willingham, who had refused to plead guilty in return for a life sentence, maintained his innocence. In fact proclaiming his innocence were among Willingham’s last words before he was executed.
Two months after the Willingham trial, a typed, unsigned note to the Navarro County clerk,marked “per John Jackson,” instructed the clerk on how to respond to the Texas Department of Corrections if prison officials inquired about Webb’s status. The note said that Webb had not been convicted of first-degree, aggravated robbery, as he had just testified in open court, but only of second-degree robbery. “If TDC calls and wants to know which one is correct — tell them ROBBERY with No Deadly Weapon Used.” The note also explained the change: “That is what John Jackson wants it to be.”
It was an unsigned note and there is no evidence linking it directly to prosecutor Jackson. Days after the note was sent to the clerk, Jackson sent a letter to prison officials requesting that Webb be assigned to a medical unit, less onerous than protective custody. “Mr. Webb was a pivotal witness in a capital murder prosecution,” Jackson wrote. Webb had “placed himself at risk based upon his testimony in the case and I fear that he may suffer reprisal if placed in the general population.”
He added, “Webb’s testimony may be necessary at [a] later stage of the proceedings and I would appreciate your attempting to place him in an environment that guarantees the smallest risk.”
A month later, Jackson followed up with another letter requesting that Webb be transferred back to the Navarro County Jail because he’d received death threats from other inmates. “In the event of a reversal,” Jackson wrote, “I would also like to be able to count on Webb’s continued cooperation.”
Over the next three years, Jackson kept in touch with Webb, and Pearce, the wealthy rancher, deposited more than $2,000 into Webb’s prison commissary account, according to prison records obtained by the Innocence Project.
Jackson’s campaign for Webb’s early release escalated in May 1996, after Webb reported that he continued to receive threats and demanded to be transferred to federal prison or the Navarro County Jail.
“Here the state offered me certain benefits in exchange for my testimony which resulted in sending a man to death row,” Webb wrote to Jackson. “Because I kept my end of the promise, the state is bound to uphold theirs until my release from incarceration.”
Six weeks later, on July 15, 1996, at Jackson’s request, the Judge who presided over Willingham’s trial and sentenced Webb to prison in 1992, entered a new judgment in Webb’s case. The crime was officially recorded as a conviction for second-degree robbery instead of an aggravated robbery, which reduced the time Webb was required to wait before seeking parole.
Jackson then sent a letter to the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles saying he had “recently” become aware through a letter from Webb that prison records mistakenly showed Webb as being convicted of aggravated robbery.
Jackson told the parole board after consulting with Webb’s attorney, he had obtained a court order changing the record to reflect that Webb was convicted on the lesser crime of second-degree robbery, with no weapon involved.
Finally, Jackson followed up with a letter to the head of the parole board saying Webb “volunteered information and testified . . without any agreement from the State respecting diminution of the recommendation in his own case.” He asked that Webb be given consideration for his “Cooperation in the murder prosecution without expectation of leniency.”
Despite the high-level support, Webb grew impatient. His request for early release was denied. But Jackson kept filing for clemency on Webb’s behalf. The application included letters from the robbery victim as well as from Attorney-General Batchelor agreeing that Webb had been punished enough.
Batchelor’s letter said that the prosecution wanted to ensure Webb’s cooperation as long as Willingham was still filing appeals. “Any threat to the public by the early release of Webb is far outweighed by the possibility that Willingham might be successful” in his appeals, Batchelor said.
Shortly after Jackson’s election as a judge in 1996, he organised another series of letters to the parole board.
Webb’s clemency request was denied. He was eventually paroled in 2007.
Jackson’s handling of the case is now under investigation by the State Bar of Texas, following a formal complaint of prosecutor misconduct.
In legal documents filed with the State Bar of Texas, the Innocence Project, a New York-based advocacy group, investigating the Willingham case for the past decade, argued that Jackson’s conduct “violated his professional, ethical and constitutional obligations.” The group called for a full investigation of Jackson’s handling of the case, arguing that he should be sanctioned or criminally prosecuted for falsifying official records, withholding evidence from the defence, perjury and obstructing justice. Jackson’s conduct, according to the documents, “violated core principles of the legal profession, and did so with terrible consequences . . . the execution of an innocent man.”
An attorney for Jackson says he expects the Texas bar to notify his client soon that it will pursue formal charges of misconduct. The attorney, Joseph E. Byrne, says Jackson will seek to have the charges heard by a jury, as the bar rules allow.
In his interviews earlier this year with the Innocence Project, Webb said: “I’ve been wanting to come forward with this . . . for a long, long time about certain specific things that no one’s ever known. This has been something that’s pretty much destroyed my life for 22 years.”
He should have added and caused the death of Cameron Todd Willingham.