|Cameron Todd Willingham awaiting his execution on Texas death row|
What Cameron Todd Willingham lost - his life, taken by the state - can never be restored. But, thankfully, there is some effort to make sure his case is accorded some measure of justice.
Given the evidence brought to light by the Marshall Project, a nonprofit group that focuses on the U.S. criminal justice system, and efforts by the Innocence Project, the State Bar of Texas was correct in filing a formal accusation of misconduct against the prosecutor in that case, John H. Jackson, on March 5.
This case begs for official examination by officials. This formal accusation, in fact, is likely not enough examination.
Since Willingham's execution by Texas in 2004, for the arson murders of his 3 daughters, re-analysis of that evidence - using more reliable tools - points to no arson at all. And other developments cast serious doubt on the significant other piece of evidence against him - testimony by a jailhouse informant.
The informant, Johnny E. Webb, has recanted testimony that Willingham told him he committed the crime. He told the Marshall Project that his testimony came in return for favors - reducing his sentence on an aggravated robbery charge. Later, a local wealthy rancher gave money to Webb, which the former informant said was also payment for his testimony.
Jackson has denied misconduct, saying he acted to protect a witness threatened by other prisoners.
The State Bar, filing with the court in Navarro County, accuses Jackson of obstruction of justice, making false statements and concealing evidence favorable to Willingham's defense.
The disciplinary petition says that "Jackson failed to make timely disclosure to the defense details for favorable treatment for Webb, an inmate, in exchange for Webb's testimony at trial for the State."
The petition alleges that Jackson told the court that he had no evidence favorable to Willingham. "That statement was false," it says.
This is a civil proceeding that could result in disbarment. But if a court finds the allegations about Jackson to be true and disciplines him, perhaps that shouldn't be the end of the matter.
We note that Ken Anderson, the prosecutor who won a conviction that sent Michael Morton to prison for 25 years in 1987 for a murder he didn't commit, was subject to criminal prosecution in Williamson County for withholding evidence.
Morton was accused of bludgeoning his wife to death. Another man was later convicted after a bandanna that the DA long refused to test was finally tested, exonerating Morton. Unfortunately, that evidence implicated a man in another murder 2 years after Christine Morton's murder - while Michael Morton sat in jail.
Another prosecutor, Charles Sebesta of Burleson County, accused of misconduct in the conviction that sent Anthony Graves to prison for 18 years for a crime he didn't commit, lost his appeal of his disbarment in February. Graves spent 12 of those years on death row. He was accused of killing 6 in 1992.
In the Morton case, Anderson agreed to 10 days in jail, disbarment and a $500 fine in 2013 - for contempt of court.
Yes, we know. That penalty doesn't quite stack up against 25 years in prison. And, in the Graves case, disbarment doesn't quite match those prison and death row years. But it's something.
Simply, prosecutors who knowingly and willfully withhold evidence and otherwise commit misconduct to win convictions should be held as accountable as the people they prosecute.
As in the Morton case, there was enough faulty, nonexistent or withheld evidence in the Willingham case to have at least won him a new trial. Instead, then Gov. Rick Perry refused to grant him a stay of execution, though he was presented an independent arson expert's conclusion that there was no evidence of a fire intentionally set.
Since the execution of Willingham - who maintained his innocence to the end - the evidence that he was telling the truth has continued to mount. This was strong enough that we called on Perry, who once called Willingham a "monster," to consider a posthumous pardon.
We now urge the same of Gov. Greg Abbott no matter how Jackson's discipline case turns out. The evidence that Willingham didn't get a fair trial is just too compelling - thanks largely to the Marshall and Innocence projects.
Source: San Antonio Express-News, Editorial, April 17, 2016
- Trial by Fire, Did Texas execute an innocent man?, David Grann, The New Yorker, September 7, 2009