The Washington Post has a long piece examining the connection between the jailhouse snitch whose testimony helped send Cameron Todd Willingham to death row and the prosecutor who has long denied taking any action to influence that testimony.
For more than 20 years, the prosecutor who convicted Cameron Todd Willingham of murdering his three young daughters has insisted that the authorities made no deals to secure the testimony of the jailhouse informer who told jurors that Willingham confessed the crime to him.
Since Willingham was executed in 2004, officials have continued to defend the account of the informer, Johnny E. Webb, even as a series of scientific experts have discredited the forensic evidence that Willingham might have deliberately set the house fire in which his toddlers were killed.
But now new evidence has revived questions about Willingham’s guilt: In taped interviews, Webb, who has previously both recanted and affirmed his testimony, gives his first detailed account of how he lied on the witness stand in return for efforts by the former prosecutor, John H. Jackson, to reduce Webb’s prison sentence for robbery and to arrange thousands of dollars in support from a wealthy Corsicana rancher. Newly uncovered letters and court files show that Jackson worked diligently to intercede for Webb after his testimony and to coordinate with the rancher, Charles S. Pearce Jr., to keep the mercurial informer in line.
“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 was threatening to recant. (Jackson misspelled the rancher’s last name.) “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.”
Along with Webb’s account, the letters and documents expose a determined, years-long effort by the prosecutor to alter Webb’s conviction, speed his parole, get him clemency and move him from a tough state prison back to his hometown jail. Had such favorable treatment been revealed prior to his execution, Willingham might have had grounds to seek a new trial.
Read the whole thing, it’s well worth your time. I sadly disagree with the suggestion that this revelation will have any effect on public opinion about the death penalty. I think people have long since factored in this possibility in their thinking, and generally conclude it’s an acceptable cost. People have been making the argument about possibly executing the innocent without much traction yet. Maybe the recent ghastly news out of Arizona about horribly botched executions will help move public opinion, I don’t know. I just don’t expect this to do much on that score.
What I think this could do is spark a closer examination of how jailhouse snitches are used, much like the earlier revelations of bad investigative technique have spawned a real review of arson forensics and even a look at some other cases in which discredited methods were used to secure convictions. The cellmate to whom a defendant that is otherwise loudly proclaiming his innocence confesses fully to the crimes with which he is charged is practically a cliche, and often a too-easy convenience for overzealous prosecutors. If some kind of reform of that practice, or at least a heightened sense of skepticism when a jailhouse snitch is employed at trial, comes out of this, then at least some good will have resulted from Willingham’s needless and unjust death.
Actually, there is one more thing that can come of all this. I must have missed it in the WaPo story, but in this Chron story about Willingham’s stepmother and biggest advocate, there’s more to this than just information.
At 71, Eugenia Willingham has spent more than a third of her life trying to prove jurors were wrong when they condemned her stepson, Todd, for murdering his three young children in a deliberately set fire. Her faith in Texas justice fell as court appeals failed, then collapsed as ‑ after the 2004 execution ‑ seemingly well-crafted attempts to posthumously clear her son’s name were thwarted by the state.
Now, the Ardmore, Okla., woman’s hopes again are rising as lawyers for the New York-based Innocence Project target the prosecutor in Todd Willingham’s case in a complaint to the State Bar of Texas. The complaint alleges former Navarro County assistant District Attorney John Jackson arranged for a jailhouse informant to testify against Willingham in return of special consideration in his own case. Then he tried to keep the deal secret from the judge, jurors and the defense attorney, according to the complaint.
If the allegations are found true, Jackson, now in private practice, possibly could be disbarred.
Innocence Project Co-founder Barry Scheck said Willingham’s execution “would never have gone forward … if John Jackson had played by the rules.”
The complaint is the latest effort by Scheck’s organization to prove Willingham’s innocence.
All of the elements in the WaPo story are contained in the complaint, so do read them both. If Ken Anderson and hopefully Charles Sebesta can be held accountable for their unjust actions, I see no reason why John Jackson can’t be, too. Maybe, just maybe, they’ll serve as examples for others to learn from. Grits and PDiddie have more.