The scientific evidence against Cameron Todd Willingham, who was executed in 2004 for the arson deaths of his three children, has long been discredited. The other piece of evidence used against him at trial was the testimony of a jailhouse informer, who said that Willingham confessed to him. Now that piece of evidence is under attack.
Cameron Todd Willingham’s stepmother and cousin, along with exoneree Michael Morton, joined the Innocence Project on Friday to call on Gov. Rick Perry to order the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles to investigate whether the state should posthumously pardon Willingham, who was executed in 2004.
“We are forever passionately committed to the mission of clearing Cameron’s name,” said Patricia Cox, Willingham’s cousin.
The [Innocence Project] says it discovered evidence that indicated the prosecutor who tried Willingham had elicited false testimony from and lobbied for early parole for a jailhouse informant in the case.
The informant, Johnny Webb, told a Corsicana jury in 1992 that Willingham had confessed to setting the blaze that killed his three daughters. The Innocence Project also alleges that the prosecutor withheld Webb’s subsequent recantation. The organization argues that those points, combined with flawed fire science in the case, demand that the state correct and learn from the mistake it made by executing Willingham.
Former Judge John H. Jackson, the Navarro County prosecutor who tried Willingham, said the Innocence Project’s claims were a “complete fabrication” and that he remained certain of Willingham’s guilt.
“I’ve not lost any sleep over it,” Jackson said.
During the trial, Webb, who was in jail on an aggravated robbery charge, said he was not promised anything in return for testifying. But correspondence records indicate that prosecutors later worked to reduce his time in prison.
In a 1996 letter, Jackson told prison officials Webb’s charge should be recorded as robbery, not aggravated robbery.
But in legal documents signed by Webb in 1992, he admitted to robbing a woman at knife point and agreed to the aggravated robbery charge.
In letters to the parole division in 1996, the prosecutor’s office also urged clemency for Webb, arguing that his 15-year sentence was excessive and that he was in danger from prison gang members because he had testified in the Willingham case.
In 2000, while he was incarcerated for another offense, Webb wrote a motion recanting his testimony, saying the prosecutor and other officials had forced him to lie.
That motion, [Barry] Scheck said, was not seen by Willingham’s lawyers until after the execution. Meanwhile, he said, prosecutors used the testimony to stymie efforts to prove Willingham’s innocence and prevent his death.
An investigation is needed, Scheck said, to improve the judicial process.
I’ve written extensively about the Willingham case. To me, the dismantling of the arson investigator’s evidence is more than enough to convince me that he did not receive a fair trial and very likely would not have been convicted – quite possibly, not even arrested – if valid investigative techniques had been used at the time. Having the non-scientific evidence called into doubt as well – surely there was a failure to disclose, at the least – makes me wonder what anyone might base a continued belief in Willingham’s guilt on. That doesn’t stop Rick Perry from keeping a closed mind about it, of course. Grits, who notes the story here, is clearly correct to say that the best chance for anything to happen with this case begins in 2015, with a new Governor. I personally think the chances are better with one candidate than with the other, but for sure there’s no chance with the current Governor. EoW has more.