The State Killed Cameron Todd Willingham, But His Case Won't Die
At this point, more than a decade after Cameron Todd Willingham's 2004 execution for the arson deaths of his three young daughters in Corsicana, there's something marrow-deep exhausting about the whole saga. Willingham went to his execution protesting his innocence, and in the years that have followed his death, the case has routinely reappeared in the news cycle with new revelations about either the junk arson science or the key witness used to convict him. The stories just keep coming.
Right now the focus is on the key witness against Willingham, Johnny Webb, and a letter that indicates the lead prosecutor on the case may have made a deal with Webb in exchange for Webb's testimony, according to a new report from the Marshall Project.
For years John Jackson, the lead prosecutor in Willingham's case, insisted that Webb wasn't coached on his testimony and that he got no special treatment or perks of any kind for agreeing to testify against Willingham. Webb ultimately testified that Willingham had confessed to the murders while they were in lockup together. That jailhouse confession, coupled with the "arson science" of the time, eventually led to Willingham's conviction and death sentence.
However, in addition to everything uncovered last year in a story by Maurice Possley, published by the Washington Post and the Marshall Project, a new letter written by Webb has surfaced, Possley now reports.
The letter, written back in June 1996, seems to show Webb pressuring Jackson to follow through on an earlier promise to knock down Webb's charges, thus lightening his sentence. Otherwise, Webb wrote, he might have to start talking publicly about his role in the case.
"Recently, as I was going over my case notes, I noticed that you had told me that the charge of aggravated robbery would be dropped, or lowered, to robbery. ... You told me this would be done before my transfer to TDC [Texas Department of Corrections]."
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Within days of sending the letter -- Webb, apparently a very organized prisoner, kept a carbon copy -- Jackson went to the judge who presided over Willingham's trial and magically obtained a court order that changed the robbery charges Webb was convicted on, making him eligible for parole.
Things with key witness Webb looked suspicious enough before this new letter was reported. According to Possley's previous reporting, Webb testified against Willingham and did indeed get a lighter sentence, a truck and financial support for years while he was both in and out of prison. He also attempted to recant his statement that Willingham had confessed to murdering his three daughters while he and Webb were in the Navarro County Jail, though the letter he sent was never put in Willingham's file or given to Willingham's lawyers.
Jackson's handling of the case is now under investigation by the State Bar of Texas in response to a complaint filed last summer. He stated that he was just trying to protect an inmate who was in danger in his reply to the Bar, according to the Marshall Project:
"In my opinion this is proper conduct and certainly not evidence of a pre-trial agreement, inducement of Webb to give perjured testimony, or other wrongdoing."
It was bad enough when it started to look like Texas may have executed an innocent man based on junk science, but the stories about the way Willingham was actually prosecuted are even more sickening. And based on what's been slowly and steadily revealed in the years since his execution, seems we can basically expect more disturbing developments to come trickling out in another year or so.