The Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles has voted not to recommend a posthumous pardon for Cameron Todd Willingham, who was executed a decade ago after being convicted of setting his house on fire, killing his three daughters.

“This whole process is, unfortunately, typical of this board, where they don’t demonstrate that they’ve actually considered the substantial evidence that we’ve put before them,” said Barry Scheck, co-founder of the Innocence Project, which has led the charge to clear Willingham’s name.

Attorneys working on behalf of Willingham and his family say new evidence suggests his innocence.  Lawyers from the Innocence Project say that a newly discovered note in the files of the prosecutor, John Jackson, suggests that Jackson made a deal with a jailhouse informant, in exchange for testimony against Willingham.  Johnny Webb told jurors that he received nothing in exchange for his testimony.  Incentivized testimony can call into question the credibility of the witness.  Webb told the jury that Willingham confessed to him.

The note said:  “based on coop in Willingham” Webb was to receive a lesser classification for his crime (Webb had been convicted of a 1st degree crime, but it was reduced to 2nd degree).

Jackson now serves as a judge.  Jackson has said he made no promises to Webb and said the Innocence Project’s claims are “complete fabrications”.  The Innocence Project only received Jackson’s file when R. Lowell Thompson, the current District Attorney, released it.  Evidence that Webb received a reduced sentence could have prompted the jury to decide their verdict differently, not to mention new advances into arson forensics.  Cameron Todd Willingham’s family, exoneree Michael Morton (who spent 25 years in prison, wrongfully convicted of his wife’s murder), and the Innocence Project have all called on Texas to investigate the Willingham case again.

In a 1996 letter, Jackson told prison officials to change Webb’s charge from aggravated robbery to robbery.  Just a few years earlier, Webb confessed to robbing a woman with a knife and agreed to an aggravated robbery charge.  Later in 1996, Jackson’s office wrote letters to the parole board urging clemency for Webb, saying his 15 year sentence was excessive and he was in danger from white supremacy groups after testifying against Willingham.  It is unclear where this argument came from.  In 2000, Webb recanted his testimony saying prosecutors coerced his testimony.  That document was not given to Willingham’s lawyers until 4 years later, after Willingham was executed.  Meanwhile, prosecutors, in the face of questionable junk science, continued to use Webb’s “un-incentivized” testimony to stall Willingham’s claims of innocence.

Jackson maintains that Webb sent him a letter recanting his recantation, saying that a prison gang forced him to do it.  “There’s no doubt that arson report was based on archaic science, but from a practical standpoint I think the result was absolutely correct,” the prosecutor, now judge said.

Willingham was put to death in 2004.

He was convicted in 1992 of arson, which resulted in the deaths of his daughters.  Barry Scheck, co-founder of the Innocence Project, said the organization has uncovered new evidence, along with debunking old arson forensic analyses, which were both key factors in the young father’s execution.

The Texas government, headed by Perry, who himself signed Willingham’s execution warrant, maintains a strong front and continues to assert unequivocal belief in Willingham’s guilt.   Terry Jacobson, who worked on the Willingham case, said allegations that Jackson acted improperly or gave a reduced sentence to a jailhouse informant are “baloney”, “that’s just not the kind of guy he is.  It’s easy to take pot shots at prosecutors…”

Jackson said, “I’ve not lost any sleep [over Willingham’s execution].”

State Sen. Rodney Ellis, D-Houston, said the Willingham case illustrates the need for reform in the clemency system because the process failed to identify several mistakes that could have prevented his execution.

“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.

Several fire scientists have concluded that the science underpinning a state fire marshal’s testimony at the time is completely wrong.  In April of 2011, the Texas Forensic Science Commission agreed.  The commission has been tasked with reviewing Texas arson cases.

Scott Henson, author of the blog, Grits for Breakfast, said further exoneration efforts may be more successful once Perry leaves office, “[He’s] made his position on the case pretty clear.”

Perry has been continually accused of derailing efforts to exonerate Willingham just to save his own political status.  Willingham asserted his innocence throughout his time on death row, including his last words,

“The only statement I want to make is that I am an innocent man – convicted of a crime I did not commit.”

Shortly before his execution, an arson expert from Austin told the governor, Rick Perry, that the 1991 fire investigation was based upon bad science.  At least 6 other leading experts have since come to that conclusion.  Not to mention the jailhouse informant recantation, then in August, Craig Beyler, hired by the TFSC, gave a less than flattering report on the original investigation.

He said that its conclusions were “nothing more than a collection of personal beliefs that have nothing to do with science…”

Two days before the commission was to hold a hearing on Beyler’s report, Gov. Perry replaced three of the members of the oversight board.  Several days later, he replaced another.  He stated that their terms were expired, but the switching of members seemed like odd timing.  Beyler’s report all but said it was highly probable that Texas executed an innocent man.

Perry has consistently denied any wrongdoing by anyone in the Willingham case and any lack of evidence, continuing to assert he believes Willingham was a “monster”, before and after his execution.


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