Nearly six years before Navarro County prosecutor John Jackson used a jailhouse snitch to help send Cameron Todd Willingham to his death, Jackson made similar use of an inmate informant in a different death penalty trial.
In both cases, the informants later said their testimony resulted from secret deals they made with the prosecutor, which were withheld from defense lawyers.
Jackson had strong evidence in the December 1986 trial of Ernest Baldree for murdering a husband and wife as he stole cash and jewelry. But Jackson also bolstered his case with testimony from Kyle Barnett, a convicted drug user and burglar, who told the jury that Baldree confessed to the crime while they were both inmates in the Navarro County Jail. Baldree was executed in 1997.
On September 10, 1991, 11 months before Willingham went on trial, Barnett signed a sworn affidavit for lawyers working on Baldree’s appeal. Barnett said that Jackson, along with Navarro County District Attorney Patrick Batchelor, pressured him to testify against Baldree in exchange for favorable treatment in his own case.
The scenario that Barnett described echoes allegations later made in the far more famous case of Cameron Todd Willingham, who was executed in 2004 for the arson murder of his three young daughters.
Last March, the Texas State Bar filed a formal accusation of misconduct against Jackson, accusing him of obstruction of justice, making false statements and concealing evidence favorable to Willingham. The bar action accused Jackson of failing to disclose to Willingham’s defense a deal with Johnny Webb, a jailhouse informant who testified that Willingham confessed to the crime while they were both in the Navarro County Jail.
Webb now says his testimony was false — that Willingham never confessed — and that Jackson threatened him with a lengthy jail term if he did not help the prosecution, so the two made a secret deal.
Jackson has denied making any deal with Webb, and says he helped Webb because he was facing death threats because of his testimony.
The state bar action against Jackson was instigated in 2014 after the Innocence Project filed a complaint based in part on Webb’s recantation.
Webb ultimately was provided several thousand dollars by Charles Pearce, a now-deceased Corsicana rancher, and Jackson went to extraordinary lengths to free Webb from prison.
Pearce helped other convicted felons in Navarro County and Kyle Barnett was among them. Webb, in his interviews, said that he, as well as Barnett and others, had provided information to prosecutors and police, including Jackson, on the drug trade in Navarro County.
In a recent interview with the Marshall Project, Barnett confirmed that he had received assistance from Pearce. “He helped me when I needed help,” Barnett said.
Jackson, in his response to the Innocence Project’s complaint, provided a sworn affidavit saying that while he had heard of Barnett, he would not recognize him, and he has “never had any contact or conversation” with Barnett. (Joseph Byrne, Jackson’s attorney, declined to comment for the article, citing state bar rules against commenting publicly on a pending case.)
Barnett says he testified reluctantly against Baldree for the prosecution. “I never wanted to testify,” Barnett said in his affidavit, “but the prosecutors there had me in a position where it would be real hard on me if I refused.”
Barnett said he was in the Navarro County Jail on a probation revocation and faced as much as six years in prison. He was a trustee at the jail — a position given to inmates who were willing “to tell everything” to prosecutors about the statements of other inmates — and had access to Baldree’s cell. Baldree “had asked me to bring him water and ice and stuff like that from downstairs and I’d help him.”
Jackson and the prosecution team told Barnett “that I needed to testify for them against Baldree….that they needed more witnesses to testify against him.”
“They told me that, if I would testify, they would allow me to go to the Cenikor Drug Rehabilitation program in Fort Worth for violating my probation,” Barnett explained in the affidavit. “They said if I didn’t testify, I’d be going back to the prison for a long time.”
Barnett said that before he testified, he was put into the drug program, and then fled to avoid testifying. He was arrested again and brought back to Navarro County. “This time, they told me I was going to testify against Ernest Baldree and told me to talk to Baldree about his crime and to get him to tell me specific details that would hurt him in his case.”
“They wanted me to testify that Baldree told me that he shot the man, went into a trailer, slapped the woman around and shot her, and shot her again while she was begging for her life,” Barnett said in the affidavit. “They wanted me to testify that Baldree had then stolen their car and driven it to Dallas. They also told me to testify that Baldree had tried to fight the cops off when he was arrested in Arlington (Texas).”
“I talked to Baldree like they told me to and he never said any of this to me,” Barnett continued. “All he told me is that he killed the people, but that he was totally out of control and that he didn’t know what he was doing because he had been doing so much speed at the time.”
At the trial, Baldree was painted as a cold-blooded killer, but privately he told Barnett that “ he was sorry for what he did. He was really sincere when he said this.”
When Barnett told the prosecutors about Baldree’s remorse, “they didn’t want to hear about it, and didn’t want me to testify about it.”
Barnett said in his affidavit that he spoke “mostly to the prosecutors and a detective named Leslie Cotten about my testimony and deal. They told me I would go back to prison for something like 25 years to life if I didn’t agree to testify for them. I told them I didn’t want to, but they really gave me no choice. They also said that if I did testify, I wouldn’t have to do any more time.”
Webb has said he faced similar threats of a life sentence by Jackson if he didn’t testify against Willingham.
Barnett's testimony was brief and did not include the fictional details he says Jackson wanted.
“What did Ernest Baldree tell you about any alleged murders in Navarro County?” Jackson asked Barnett.
“He just told me he shot a man and a woman outside of here,” Barnett told the jury.
Jackson: “How did this happen to come up?”
Barnett: “I asked him about it.”
Jackson: “What did you ask him?”
Barnett: “I asked him how it felt to kill someone.”
Jackson: “Then he told you about (it), is that right?”
Barnett: “Yes, sir.”
Jackson: “Did he tell you that?”
Barnett: “Yes, sir."
That was the end of Barnett’s testimony. Baldree’s defense attorney, Kerri Anderson, did not cross-examine Barnett at all.
Anderson, who is now known as Anderson Donica, says she does not recall being told of a deal between Barnett and the prosecutors, and that his testimony was a small detail in a strong case against her client. She supports Jackson in his current trouble with the State Bar over the Willingham case. Jackson has an office directly above her office across from the Navarro County courthouse.
“The D.A. and Cotten gave me clear instructions not to tell anyone, including while I was on the stand, that I was getting a deal for my testimony,” Barnett said in his affidavit.
“They had told me that I would go free for my testimony right after the trial, but instead I got sent back” to prison, Barnett added. “Still, after I testified for them, I got paroled…in March of 1987.”
Barnett’s affidavit was part of an appeal challenging Baldree’s conviction and death sentence. On September 30, 1991 — exactly 21 days after Barnett signed his affidavit — Jackson, Batchelor and Cotten filed affidavits in response denying all of Barnett’s claims.
Jackson said in his affidavit “that neither myself, nor anyone acting upon my instruction, made any type of ‘deal’ with Mr. Barnett in exchange for his testimony” and that he had never pushed Barnett to talk with Baldree at the jail.
Similarly, Cotten, in his affidavit, also denied telling Barnett to talk to Baldree or coaching Barnett how to testify against Baldree or threatening Barnett with a long prison term if he did not testify.
In his affidavit, Batchelor said he never talked to any prosecution witnesses and that his involvement in the case was limited to obtaining the indictment through a grand jury and helping Jackson select the jury to hear Baldree’s trial. Then, Batchelor said, he went on vacation.
Cotten and Batchelor declined to be interviewed.
On the same day that Jackson, Cotten and Batchelor signed their affidavits, Baldree’s habeas petition was summarily dismissed by Navarro County District Court Judge Kenneth “Buck” Douglas, who had presided over Baldree’s trial.
By then, the Navarro County prosecutors were preparing for another death penalty trial, of Cameron Todd Willingham.
This article was originally published by The Marshall Project, a nonprofit news organization that covers the U.S. criminal justice system. Sign up for their newsletter, or follow The Marshall Project on Facebook or Twitter.