It's been more than a decade since Cameron Todd Willingham was executed for the arson deaths of his three young daughters in Corsicana. Willingham went to his execution declaring his innocence, and in the years since, it has become increasingly clear that he was convicted and sentenced to death on the basis of junk arson science and a key witness who testified under troubling circumstances. Willingham was pronounced dead seven minutes after he received the lethal injection on February 17, 2004, but the stories about the case just keep coming.
The latest is about John Jackson, the Navarro County prosecutor who convicted Willingham. Jackson has always said there were no special deals offered to secure the jailhouse snitch testimony that helped send Willingham to his death, which conflicts with what the informant has told reporters in recent months. And, in what is perhaps a more troubling revelation, it turns out Jackson used a similar deal with an inmate informant in a death penalty case in 1986, according to a new report by the Marshall Project.
The Willingham case wasn't the first time Jackson chose to strengthen his hand in court with testimony from an inmate informant, according to the Marshall Project. In a case six years before, Jackson had a solid case against Ernest Baldree for murdering a husband and wife as he stole cash and jewelry, but even in a case in which evidence — including a stolen car — clearly tied the defendant to the crime, Jackson reportedly chose to go the extra mile by securing testimony from a jailhouse snitch. Jackson used testimony from inmate informant Kyle Barnett. Barnett told the jury that Baldree confessed to the murders while both were in the Navarro County Jail. Baldree was convicted and executed in 1997.
While he didn't give the prosecutors exactly what they wanted — Barnett actually ditched drug rehab and tried to flee to avoid testifying and he didn't really say much on the stand — Barnett did testify in the end. He says he was told he'd be facing a life sentence if he didn't.
If that story sounds familiar, it's because it's a lot like what happened in the Willingham case. About five months ago, it came out that there was a letter indicating that Jackson, the lead prosecutor in the Willingham trial, had made a deal with Johnny Webb, the scale-tipping witness against Willingham, in exchange for Webb's testimony. For years, Jackson 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.
Afterward, Webb did indeed get a lighter sentence. He also received a truck and financial support from local rancher Charles Pearce for years while he was both in and out of prison. And 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.
After he served his time, Barnett got financial help from Pearce, just as Webb did. Also like Webb, Barnett then shared how he'd come to be a jailhouse witness for the prosecution in the first place. Barnett signed a sworn affidavit in 1991 for lawyers working on Baldree's appeal stating that Jackson and Navarro County District Attorney Patrick Batchelor had pressured Barnett into testifying in exchange for a better deal in his own case. “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.”
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Jackson, Batchelor and a detective, Leslie Cotten, all filed affidavits in response to Barnett's denying his claims of witness coaching or that he was offered any deal. Baldree's defense attorney, Kerri Anderson, told the Marshall Project that she never heard about anything being offered in exchange for Barnett's testimony, and said that his testimony was only a small piece in a very solid case against her client.
The argument from prosecutors would hold more water if Barnett's story didn't sound so very much like Webb's, down to getting monetary help from the same rancher, Pearce. Webb also told the Marshall Project that he and people like Barnett gave Navarro County law enforcement information about the drug trade in exchange for lighter sentences.
In March, the State Bar of Texas filed a formal accusation of misconduct against Jackson in the Willingham case, accusing him of obstruction of justice, making false statements and concealing evidence favorable to Willingham. The bar action also accused Jackson of not telling Willingham's defense of the deal he'd made with Webb to get Webb's testimony.
The Willingham story was bad enough when it looked as if an overzealous prosecutor had gone too far, but now we have something more troubling to contend with: The Willingham case might not have been an aberration. It's looking like this was simply how things were done in Navarro County. If Jackson felt the need to stack the deck in a case like Baldree's, where even the defense lawyer says the evidence was solidly against her client, what chance was there he wouldn't do the same with the thinner case against Willingham?