Updated, Feb. 28, 2014, 2:30 p.m.:
Attorneys working on behalf of Cameron Todd Willingham, who was executed 10 years ago after he was convicted of setting a house fire that killed his three young daughters, say they have new evidence that suggests he was innocent.
Lawyers from the New York-based Innocence Project say a newly discovered note in the files of John Jackson, the prosecutor who oversaw his conviction, suggests that Jackson made a deal with a jailhouse informant, Johnny Webb, who testified against Willingham. At Jackson's prompting, Webb told jurors during the trial that he received nothing in exchange for his testimony implicating the Willingham in the case.
Webb, then an inmate serving time for a first-degree robbery charge, said Willingham had confessed to him.
The note, scribbled within the district attorney’s file folder, said “based on coop in Willingham,” Webb was to receive a less severe second-degree classification, as opposed to the first-degree charge he was convicted on, according to the Innocence Project.
Jackson, who is now a state district judge, did not immediately return phone calls seeking comment.
Webb told a jury in the case that he had not received any incentive for his testimony. Jackson has said that he made no promises to Webb. He has called the Innocence Project’s claims a “complete fabrication” and said he remained certain of Willingham’s guilt.
The Innocence Project received Jackson’s file after the current district attorney, R. Lowell Thompson, released it. The note is not dated or signed.
The Innocence Project has sought a posthumous pardon for Willingham from the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles and Gov. Rick Perry. Evidence that Webb had received a deal for his testimony could have prompted the jury to decide differently about Willingham's guilt, said lawyers working on his behalf.
Updated, 1:06 p.m.:
Cameron Todd Willingham's stepmother and cousin, along with exoneree Michael Morton, joined the Innocence Project on Friday to call on Gov. Rick Perry to order the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles to investigate whether the state should posthumously pardon Willingham, who was executed in 2004.
"We are forever passionately committed to the mission of clearing Cameron’s name," said Patricia Cox, Willingham's cousin.
Willingham was convicted in 1992 of intentionally igniting a blaze that killed his three daughters. Barry Scheck, co-founder of the Innocence Project, said the organization has uncovered new evidence that the prosecutor who tried Willingham paid favors to the jailhouse informant whose testimony — along with arson science that has since been debunked — was a key factor in the young father's conviction.
"We think it is very important for the governor himself to take a look at this," Scheck said.
Morton, who was convicted of his wife's murder in 1987 and spent nearly 25 years in prison before DNA testing led to his exoneration in 2011, appealed to Perry as a Christian to examine whether human errors led to a wrongful execution.
"We're here for one simple reason," Morton said. "As believers, we're asking him to consider this. We're not asking for promises."
Josh Havens, a spokesman for Perry, who has previously expressed his belief in Willingham's guilt, said that the governor's office had received the letter and was reviewing it.
State Sen. Rodney Ellis, D-Houston, said the Willingham case illustrates the need for reform in the state's clemency system, because the process failed to identify several mistakes that could have prevented the execution.
Former Navarro County Judge John Jackson, the former prosecutor who tried Willingham, denied allegations of any prosecutorial misconduct in the case and said he remains convinced of Willingham’s guilt.
Terry Jacobson, who worked on the Willingham case as Corsicana's city attorney, said allegations that Jackson acted inappropriately or extended benefits to a jailhouse informant were "baloney."
"That’s just not the kind of guy he is," Jacobson said. "It’s easy take pot shots at prosecutors these days."
Armed with what it says is new evidence of wrongdoing in the prosecution of Cameron Todd Willingham, the Innocence Project on Friday will ask Gov. Rick Perry to order the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles to investigate whether the state should posthumously pardon Willingham, whose 2004 execution has become a lightning rod of controversy over the Texas justice system.
“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, cofounder of the Innocence Project, a legal group that focuses on wrongful convictions.
The organization says it discovered evidence that indicated the prosecutor who tried Willingham had elicited false testimony from and lobbied for early parole for a jailhouse informant in the case.
The informant, Johnny Webb, told a Corsicana jury in 1992 that Willingham had confessed to setting the blaze that killed his three daughters. The Innocence Project also alleges that the prosecutor withheld Webb’s subsequent recantation. The organization argues that those points, combined with flawed fire science in the case, demand that the state correct and learn from the mistake it made by executing Willingham.
Former Judge John H. Jackson, the Navarro County prosecutor who tried Willingham, said the Innocence Project’s claims were a “complete fabrication” and that he remained certain of Willingham’s guilt.
“I’ve not lost any sleep over it,” Jackson said.
Willingham was convicted, largely on the testimony of a state fire marshal, who said Willingham had started the 1991 fire that killed his daughters.
Several fire scientists, though, have concluded that the science underpinning that conclusion was faulty. In April 2011, the Texas Forensic Science Commission agreed.
Now, Scheck said, his organization has discovered that prosecutors went to great lengths to secure false testimony from Webb, to repay him for helping secure the conviction and to hide the recantation.
During the trial, Webb, who was in jail on an aggravated robbery charge, said he was not promised anything in return for testifying. But correspondence records indicate that prosecutors later worked to reduce his time in prison.
In a 1996 letter, Jackson told prison officials Webb’s charge should be recorded as robbery, not aggravated robbery.
But in legal documents signed by Webb in 1992, he admitted to robbing a woman at knife point and agreed to the aggravated robbery charge.
In letters to the parole division in 1996, the prosecutor’s office also urged clemency for Webb, arguing that his 15-year sentence was excessive and that he was in danger from prison gang members because he had testified in the Willingham case.
In 2000, while he was incarcerated for another offense, Webb wrote a motion recanting his testimony, saying the prosecutor and other officials had forced him to lie.
That motion, Scheck said, was not seen by Willingham’s lawyers until after the execution. Meanwhile, he said, prosecutors used the testimony to stymie efforts to prove Willingham’s innocence and prevent his death.
An investigation is needed, Scheck said, to improve the judicial process.
Jackson said he made no promises to Webb. He also said Webb had sent him a letter explaining that the recantation motion was untruthful but that he was forced to submit it by prison gang members 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,” Jackson said.
The Innocence Project has worked for years to exonerate Willingham, but Perry has argued that he was guilty.
Scott Henson, author of the criminal justice blog Grits for Breakfast, believes the current effort may be successful when a new governor takes office in 2015, he said.
Henson added, “Perry has made his position on the case pretty clear.”