Relatives of Cameron Todd Willingham urged the state of Texas on Friday to conduct an investigation into Willingham’s execution.  Last year, Willingham’s family filed a posthumous pardon petition before the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles asking that the state pardon him.  Willingham was executed in 2004 for the arson murder of his three daughters despite compelling evidence of his innocence.  Since that time, newly discovered evidence points to false testimony from a jailhouse informant and possible prosecutorial misconduct, in addition to faulty arson forensic science used at the time.

“This is a terrible thing to not only execute somebody who was innocent; this is an individual who lost his three children,” said Barry Scheck, co-founder of the Innocence Project.

The Innocence Project discovered evidence that indicated the prosecutor who tried Mr. Willingham had elicited false testimony from and lobbied for early parole for a jailhouse informant in the case.

Willingham’s conviction was based on the testimony of a state fire marshal that said that Willingham started the fire intentionally and on testimony of an informant, Johnny Webb.  Webb claimed that Willingham confessed to him in 1992 that he had set the fire to protect his wife, who had killed the children the night before.  Prior to Willingham’s execution, Webb acknowledged in 2000 in a handwritten “motion to recant” that he lied and that prosecutors made him testify anyway.  He also said Willingham was innocent.  Prosecutors never disclosed Webb’s recantation to the defense, a violation of evidentiary rules.  Meanwhile, prosecutors used the testimony of a confession to confound efforts to prove Mr. Willingham’s innocence and prevent his death.

Scheck noted that there is new evidence pointing to possible prosecutorial misconduct. Judge John H. Jackson, who was the Navarro County prosecutor who tried Willingham in 1992, wrote to prison officials in 1996 to tell the prison that his aggravated robbery charge should actually be recorded as robbery, suggesting that Webb was secretly promised a deal in exchange for testifying.  This changing of charges directly contradicts the fact that in legal documents signed by Webb in 1992, he admitted robbing a woman at knifepoint and agreed to the aggravated robbery charge.  Other letters written in 1996 to the parole division from the prosecutor’s office urged clemency for Webb.  The letters stated that Webb’s 15 year sentence was excessive and that he was in danger from prison gangs because he testified at Willingham’s trial.

An investigation is needed, Mr. Scheck said, to improve the judicial process.  The Innocence Project and Willingham’s family are asking that the state correct and learn from the tragic mistake it made by executing Willingham.  The prosecutor, Judge Jackson, lashed out at the project saying that the claims were “complete fabrications” and he is convinced of Willingham’s guilt, “I’ve not lost any sleep over it.”  Others have.  Several fire scientists since the execution have concluded that the science used at the trial was faulty.  In April 2011, the Texas Forensic Science Commission agreed.  Jackson claims that Webb sent him a letter saying that the recantation was a lie and he was forced to do it by prison gangs who supported Willingham.

“There’s no doubt the arson report was based on archaic science, but from a practical standpoint I think the result was absolutely correct,” Mr. Jackson said.

The Innocence Project has worked for years to exonerate Mr. Willingham, much to the chagrin of the prosecutor and the governor of Texas, Rick Perry, who signed Willingham’s death warrant.  Perry has signed more death warrants and overseen more executions than any other in history.  The investigation may stand a better chance when a new governor takes office in 2015.

NOTE:  There is no evidence, nor was there ever any implication that Willingham was involved in gangs before the information about Webb’s recantation surfaced.  There is also no reason or evidence for gangs to support Willingham’s “false” innocence.

  • Read the Innocence Project’s Press Release here.
  • Send a message of support of an investigation to the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles and Gov. Perry here.
  • WATCH:  Death by Fire, a documentary about Cameron Todd Willingham’s case and possible innocence here.  Did Texas execute an innocent man?  FRONTLINE gains unique access meticulously examining the evidence used to convict Willingham and exploring the explosive implications of the execution of a possibly innocent man.
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Comments
  1. Lon Spector says:

    “Better late then never” doesn’t apply here.

    Like

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