Death Penalty

Innocence Project seeks ethics probe of prosecutor in Willingham case


The Innocence Project has asked the State Bar of Texas to investigate the prosecutor in the case of Cameron Todd Willingham, who was executed in 2004 for the deaths of his three children in a 1991 fire.

Jailhouse informant Johnny Webb had testified that Willingham told him he deliberately set the fatal fire, but Webb has varied since then on whether the testimony was true. Now Webb says he lied in exchange for efforts by the prosecutor to reduce Webb’s prison sentence for robbery and to arrange financial support from a wealthy rancher who used his money to help troubled youths, the Marshall Project reports in a story published by the Washington Post.

According to the story, newly uncovered letters and court 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.” Webb testified at trial that prosecutors had not offered him anything in exchange for his testimony.

Webb told the Innocence Project he received $10,000 from the rancher after his release from prison. He also said the rancher paid his $10,000 tuition at an underwater welding school. Records show Webb was dismissed from the school after he was jailed on a drug charge in 1998. At the time, he listed his income as $1,000 a month from the rancher, the story says.

Webb filed a formal motion to recant in 2000, but it was never placed in the court file or disclosed to Willingham’s lawyers, the story says. The Innocence Project argued in a grievance filed with the state bar on July 25 that the prosecutor could be sanctioned for his conduct in the case.

John Jackson, the former prosecutor, says he tried to help Webb because he believed other inmates had threatened Webb for his earlier cooperation. Jackson became a judge and retired in 2012.

Willingham had claimed he awoke to the fire in December 1991 and was unable to reach his daughters. Unemployed at the time, Willingham was seen laughing and drinking beer after the funeral. Willingham’s lawyer called only one witness at his three-day trial, a babysitter who said he loved his children.

Prior coverage:

ABAJournal.com: “Posthumous pardon denied for man executed for arson deaths; lawyers had cited new evidence”

ABAJournal.com: “Family of executed man seeks investigation into possible innocence”

ABAJournal.com: “Defense Lawyer Says Executed Client Was Guilty in Texas Arson”

ABAJournal.com: “Did Man Confess Before Much-Debated Execution? Former Wife May Think So”

ABAJournal.com: “Expert Hits Arson Finding in Case that Led to Defendant’s Execution”

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