The Innocence Project has filed new documents with the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles in its mission to obtain a posthumous pardon for Cameron Todd Willingham, who was executed in 2004.  The new documents describe new evidence, including a notation in the District Attorney’s files that suggests that jailhouse informant, Johnny Webb, received a deal from Navarro County D.A. John Jackson in exchange for his testimony.

This new evidence further suggests that Jackson, who has since become a judge, deceived the Board of Pardons and Paroles about the existence of the deal, which had they known about, would have spared Willingham’s life.

Willingham was executed for the arson murder of his three daughters over mounting evidence that he was innocent.  Jackson has always maintained to the public that Webb did not receive any favorable treatment.  Deals with witnesses often call into question their credibility, but without knowledge of a deal, Webb’s credibility, in this respect, was not questioned.  Just days before Willingham was authorized to be executed, it was discovered that the testimony of the fire examiners who claimed there was evidence of arson was outdated, unreliable forensic science.      

The then District Attorney, Jackson had moved on to be a judge, opposed a stay of execution saying that faulty science didn’t matter because Webb’s testimony implicated Willingham.

“It’s astonishing that 10 years after Todd Willingham was executed we are still uncovering evidence showing what a grave injustice this case represents,” said Barry Scheck, Co-Director of the Innocence Project, “The Texas clemency system is severely broken and must be fixed. The Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles can begin that process by conducting a thorough investigation into how the state allowed this execution to go forward in the face of so much evidence pointing to Mr. Willingham’s innocence.”

The note that the Innocence Project discovered was on the cover of the file on the robbery charges against Webb and stated that the charge should be reduced to a lesser offense “based on coop in Willingham.”  At trial, Webb told the jury that he had been convicted of a more serious charge (aggravated robbery) and had already been sentenced to an appropriate sentence.  Webb also told the jury he was not offered any incentives for his testimony.

Attorneys also recently uncovered a separate note in another Webb case filed dated just a few months after Willingham was convicted with instructions from Jackson informing a clerk to tell the Texas Department of Criminal Justice that Webb was convicted of a lesser charge (second degree robbery).  There is also evidence suggesting that Jackson followed through and obtained an order to reduce the charge from aggravated robbery to second degree robbery.  This reduction meant that Webb would be eligible for parole much sooner.

Jackson additionally wrote the Board of Pardons and Paroles on two occasions to support early parole for Webb.  In 1996, Jackson noted Webb’s testimony in the Willingham case as a reason to release Webb early.

In the weeks leading up to Willingham’s execution, questions surrounded his guilt.  His lawyers sought a 90-day stay in order to investigate whether Webb was incentivized.  Jackson wrote the Board on his official judicial letterhead to oppose the stay.  Jackson also attempted to explain why Webb in 2000 recanted his testimony claiming that Webb somehow was coerced into recanting by Willingham.  He maintained that a “misguided” documentary filmmaker told Willingham where Webb was.  Prosecutors never disclosed Webb’s recantation to Willingham or his lawyers.

Jackson has consistently downplayed his correspondence with Webb and on Webb’s behalf.  Webb began corresponding with Jackson almost immediately after going to prison in 1992.  Webb complained in the letters about prison staff.  Jackson took extraordinary steps to assist Webb, including issuing bench warrants to remove Webb from prison and filing a clemency petition for Webb.

Willingham’s lawyers were never given the opportunity to address Jackson’s assistance to Webb or counter any statements made by the ex-prosecutor to the Board.  The Board rejected Willingham’s pleas.  As Willingham’s execution neared, his attorneys pleaded with Governor Rick Perry to stay the execution.  They sent him a report by Gerald Hurst, a nationally recognized arson expert, saying that Willingham’s conviction was based upon erroneous forensic analysis.

Willingham was executed and pronounced dead at 6:20 p.m. on February 17, 2004.

“Reasonable people can disagree on whether the death penalty is an appropriate form of punishment, but these deeply disturbing new developments should be proof enough that Texas must enact strong protections to protect the innocent before carrying out any more executions,” added Bryce Benjet, a staff attorney with the Innocence Project.

After Willingham’s death, the Innocence Project asked the then-newly formed Texas Forensic Science Commission to investigate the case and the case of Ernest Willis, who was convicted using similar flawed evidence.  Willis was eventually exonerated.

During the course of that multi-year investigation, nine of the nation’s leading arson scientists reviewed the evidence in Willingham’s case and all agreed that the original testimony of the fire investigators was incorrect.  The commission was ultimately barred by the Texas Attorney General from making a finding of whether or not the state was negligent in the wrongful execution, however the commission acknowledged that unreliable forensics facilitated Willingham’s execution and recommended that the state conduct a review to determine if there are other innocent people in Texas prison who were wrongly convicted based upon faulty arson science.

Many of the questions of Willingham’s guilt, including withheld exculpatory evidence and flawed forensics would have entitled Willingham to a new trial.

As late as 2009, Governor Rick Perry has insisted that Texas did nothing wrong in executing Willingham and despite all of the questions and new evidence, he continues to call Willingham a “monster”.



In Death by Fire, FRONTLINE gains unique access to those closest to the Willingham case — meticulously examining the evidence used to convict Willingham, offering an in-depth portrait of those most impacted by the case, and exploring the explosive implications of the execution of a possibly innocent man.

  1. MIKE says:

    The fact is the Texas judicial system is no better than those who are being run through the system to the execution chamber.


    • Dan S. says:

      @Mike, Ain’t that the truth.Judge Jon Jackson is the only murderer involved in that case.His lies and deceit killed Willingham.I hope he gets what he deserves.


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