"One is absolutely sickened, not by the crimes that the wicked have committed, but by the punishments that the good have inflicted." -- Oscar Wilde

Wednesday, May 3, 2017

Former Texas Prosecutor Probably Sent Innocent Man to His Death. Now He's on Trial for Misconduct.

Cameron Todd Willingham
Cameron Todd Willingham
THE COURTHOUSE IN Corsicana, Texas, roughly 60 miles southeast of Dallas, has been meticulously restored to its original 1905 glory, a time when the county was awash in oil money. Its main courtroom has soaring, two-story pink walls and gold-flecked architectural details that frame the judge’s bench, witness stand, and jury box. For more than three decades, John Jackson worked this room (though during those years it was a far more utilitarian space), first as a prosecutor with the Navarro County district attorney’s office and later as an elected judge, until his retirement in 2012.

Last week he returned, this time as a defendant, facing charges brought by the State Bar of Texas, whose lawyers argue that Jackson violated basic legal ethics in connection with his conduct in prosecuting the county’s most notorious case, the death penalty trial of Cameron Todd Willingham, who was convicted and ultimately executed for what the state insists was the December 1991 arson-murder of his three young children in the home they shared just over a mile away.

Specifically, the state’s lawyers contend that Jackson made a deal with a jailhouse snitch who agreed to testify against Willingham and then hid that deal from Willingham’s defense attorneys — a clear violation of both law and ethics. They say that Jackson took extraordinary measures over the next two decades to conceal his deceitful actions.

“It is a duty of the prosecution — an ethical obligation — to turn over that evidence,” state bar lawyer Kristin Brady told jurors in her opening arguments last Wednesday afternoon. “For years he protected this snitch; for years. It wasn’t for [the snitch’s] protection, it was for his own protection.”

The prosecution of Willingham has been widely reported and litigated, in part because his conviction was secured on twin pillars of evidence known to wreak havoc in the criminal justice system: junk science and incentivized snitch testimony.

Where the junk science is concerned, there is now little question that the fire that killed Willingham’s children was not arson — caused, as the state claimed, by Willingham spreading lighter fluid around his house and setting it ablaze. Leading fire scientists have weighed in to say that the evidence the Corsicana Fire Department and Texas fire marshal investigator relied upon in fingering Willingham as the cause of the deadly blaze was based on outdated, discredited fire-science folklore.

It is the second basis of the prosecution, however, that underlies Jackson’s current civil disciplinary trial.

In short, lead prosecutor Jackson called a man named Johnny Webb to testify at Willingham’s 1992 trial to say that while he was locked up in the county jail on an aggravated robbery charge, his fellow inmate, Willingham, randomly, and in detail, confessed to Webb his alleged crime. Under questioning by Jackson, Webb asserted that he did not expect any benefit in exchange for his incriminating testimony.

In the years since Willingham’s 2004 execution, significant evidence has come to light indicating that was untrue. Records amassed by the bar association and the Innocence Project — including lengthy correspondence between Jackson and Webb spanning roughly a decade — strongly suggest not only that it was at least implied to Webb that he would receive a reduced sentence for his testimony, but also that Jackson went to great lengths to make that happen. Moreover, Webb now insists that his trial testimony was false and compelled by Jackson.
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Source: The Intercept, Jordan Smith, May 2, 2017

Recommended content: Trial by Fire, The New Yorker, David Grann, September 2009

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