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Texas: Rodney Reed granted indefinite stay of execution

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Stay of execution came just hours after parole board unanimously recommended 120-day reprieve
The Texas death row prisoner Rodney Reed was granted a stay of execution on Friday, 5 days before he was scheduled to be put to death for a murder he insists he did not commit.
The Texas court of criminal appeals blocked the execution indefinitely and sent the case back to the trial court in Bastrop county, where Reed was sentenced in 1998 for the murder of Stacey Stites two years earlier.
The court had previously rejected multiple appeals, but Reed’s lawyers argued that fresh evidence bolstered his claim of innocence. 
They said in a statement that they “are extremely relieved and thankful … this opportunity will allow for proper consideration of the powerful and mounting new evidence of Mr Reed’s innocence”.
Millions of people, including a clutch of celebrities, have rallied behind Reed’s cause, helping to generate momentum and public attention as the execution date of 20 November loomed an…

Texas: Executed killer's stepmother hopes new legal filings will help clear man's name

At 71, Eugenia Willingham has spent more than a third of her life trying to prove jurors were wrong when they condemned her stepson, Todd, of murdering his three young children in a deliberately set fire. Her faith in Texas justice fell as court appeals failed, then collapsed as - after the 2004 execution - seemingly well-crafted attempts to posthumously clear her son's name were thwarted by the state.

Now, the Oklahoma woman's hopes again are rising as lawyers for the New York-based Innocence Project target the prosecutor in Cameron Todd Willingham's case in a complaint to the State Bar of Texas. The complaint filed late last month raises new accusations in the case, alleging former Navarro County assistant District Attorney John Jackson arranged for a jailhouse informant to testify against Willingham in return for special consideration in his own case. Then he tried to keep the deal secret from the judge, jurors and defense attorney.

After the testimony, the complaint continues, Jackson arranged to have the informant's conviction reduced to a lesser offense. And after the informant was paroled, the complaint alleges, a friend of Jackson's gave the man $10,000.

If the allegations are found true, Jackson, now in private practice, could be disbarred.

The complaint is the Innocence Project's latest attempt to prove that Texas executed an innocent man. The case has pitted Gov. Rick Perry against an international group of death penalty opponents, who charge that his administration has tried to block an impartial investigation of the case. Willingham, 36 at the time of his execution, protested his innocence from the death house gurney.

Eugenia Willingham, who reared Todd Willingham from infancy, said she is "optimistic" that the complaint against Jackson will succeed. Still, she said, she is weary from legal battles that have ranged from courtrooms to state forensic hearings to the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles - all of which have ended in defeat.

"The sound of his voice is fading," she said of her son. "I have to really concentrate to remember what his laugh sounded like. I hate to lose that, but, after a period of time, it just goes away."

Jailhouse informant

Willingham's mother, a housekeeper and cook at an Ardmore, Okla.-area hospital, said she believes her son was innocent because he told her so - and asked her and her late husband to help clear his name.

The complaint outlines portions of trial transcript where jailhouse informant John Webb told jurors he had received no special consideration for his testimony against Willingham. Webb testified that Willingham told him that he had sprayed and ignited lighter fluid in the family home to conceal abuse Willingham's 2-year-old stepdaughter and 1-year-old twins had suffered at the hands of their mother.

However, in a recorded interview with Innocence Project lawyers cited in the complaint, Webb said Jackson told him what to say in court. Jackson, he said, promised to reward him by making his aggravated robbery case "disappear" even if he was convicted.

Included with the complaint was a note - attributed to Jackson - advising county staffers to tell prison officials that Webb, serving time for an aggravated robbery conviction, had been convicted only of the lesser offense of second-degree robbery.

Transfer attempt

The complaint alleges that Jackson attempted to have Webb transferred to a federal prison or the Navarro County Jail, ostensibly to keep him safe from prison inmates angered by his cooperation with the prosecution. When Webb was paroled, according to the complaint, he was given $10,000 by a Corsicana-area man associated with Jackson.

When he was returned to prison for another offense, Jackson wrote him that he and the benefactor were discussing aspects of his case, the complaint says.

At one point, the complaint contends, Webb notified Jackson that he wanted to recant his testimony against Willingham. No notice of that intent was included in the official case file or passed on to Willingham's lawyers.

Jackson did not respond to a request for comment placed through his son, a Corsicana lawyer.

Eugenia Willingham said allegations in the complaint came as little surprise. "We always have known it was a lie," she said of Webb's testimony. "We always knew, but we couldn't prove it."

Willingham said her son phoned her and her husband as he awaited trial, saying that he had learned Webb would testify against him. "We told him to talk with his lawyer. When we talked to Todd again, he said his lawyer told him the incident (the expected testimony) was just another nail in his coffin. He didn't seem too interested."

Later, she said, she heard rumors that the recently paroled Webb had obtained a new pickup - a vehicle the complaint says was purchased with money provided by Jackson's associate.

Innocence Project co-founder Barry Scheck said Willingham's execution "would never have gone forward ... if John Jackson had played by the rules."

Scheck's organization has made multiple attempts to prove Willingham's innocence.

Earlier, three expert reviews, including one provided by the Innocence Project, found the science behind investigations that branded the Dec. 23, 1991, Corsicana fire an arson was faulty. A three-year review by the Texas Forensic Science Commission ended in recommendations for more stringent investigation standards in 2011. But the panel stopped short of finding investigators negligent, partly because the state attorney general's office ruled the panel had no authority in the case.

Supporters of Willingham's conviction argued that he would have been found guilty even without testimony from fire investigators.

Death penalty opponents charged that Perry, who was governor at the time of Willingham's execution, manipulated the commission by replacing three of its members, including its chairman. The ousted chairman told reporters that lawyers for Perry had advised him money spent on the investigation was wasted. The new Perry-appointed chairman, then-Williamson County District Attorney John Bradley, publicly described Willingham as a "guilty monster." Perry denied trying to influence the investigation.

'Rock bottom'

A 2010 Austin court of inquiry, convened at the behest of the Innocence Project, which hoped to have Willingham declared wrongfully executed, was halted when an appeals court ruled the judge was not authorized to take the case. A 2014 Innocence Project attempt to have Willingham posthumously pardoned by the Board of Pardons and Paroles also failed.

Eugenia Willingham admitted the legal setbacks, beginning with her son's execution, have taken their toll. "I hit rock bottom," she said of the execution. "It's hard to explain, sort of how you feel when the air is knocked out of you. It hurts. It's still very wrong."

Still, she said, she will persist. In his last conversation with his parents, Willingham urged them "never to give up on him."

"He was crazy about those kids," his mother said. "I'm going after this whatever may happen, and I hope and pray it has a good ending."

Source: Houston Chronicle, Allan Turner, August 6, 2014 

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