When Junk Science Meets Jailhouse Snitches

Cameron Todd Willingham was executed by the State of Texas in 2004 for the arson-murder of his three children. The basis of that conviction was “expert” testimony about the arson that had been debunked before Texas carried out the execution and a jailhouse snitch’s testimony that had since been recanted with claims of coercion by the prosecutor, John Jackson.

Rick Perry Allowed the Execution

Former Texas governor Rick Perry refused to consider last-minute appeals before the execution, and, according to Texas attorney John Floyd, refused to even read reports that established there was no arson:

And, as final note in this sordid affair, Jackson is not the only public official responsible for Willingham’s wrongful execution. Former Gov. Rick Perry, now the nation’s energy secretary, had reliable evidence from a fire expert before him that strongly indicated the fire that killed Willingham’s children was not the result of arson. Perry did not even read the evidence, much less consider it, before he denied Willingham’s last ditch effort to stay the February 17, 2004 execution.

In 2009, Perry worked to kill funding for a commission that was investigating Willingham’s execution. Despite overwhelming evidence that the fire Willingham was executed for was not arson, Perry continued to maintain that there was overwhelming evidence of guilt as he replaced the members of the panel that were about to hear testimony on the junk science used in Willingham’s trial.

A Typically Unreliable Jailhouse Informant

John Jackson also relied on the testimony of Johnny Webb, a jailhouse snitch who claimed that Willingham confessed to him at the county jail, to convict Willingham. At trial, Webb testified that he had not been offered any deals by the prosecutor although he was serving time for an aggravated robbery charge at the time of Willingham’s trial. Prior to trial, Webb called the FBI from the jail to say he was being forced to testify to something that was not true but then refused to talk to the FBI when they came to interview him. The alleged confession to which he testified was full of inconsistencies that did not match other evidence in the case. Webb later claimed again that he was forced to testify to something that was not true.

Despite the assurances that Jackson had never offered to help Webb in exchange for his testimony, Jackson engaged in lengthy correspondence with Webb after the Willingham trial and ultimately secured Webb’s release from prison by changing his conviction to a lesser offense that reduced his sentence.

According to Jackson, there was a legitimate issue in his mind about what charge Webb had actually pleaded guilty to back in 1992, and he was simply trying to resolve the discrepancy. Reducing Webb’s charge would be a matter of “justice,” Jackson intimated during testimony last week.

The problem, however, is that there’s no doubt Webb was charged with and pleaded guilty to aggravated robbery — something Jackson should know since he not only represented the state at Webb’s plea hearing back in 1992, but also questioned Webb about his conviction during Willingham’s trial — making his use of this particular process highly improper, according to the bar.

Ultimately, Jackson testified that he was trying to assist Webb and was “hoping I’d be able to find a way” to do it. But it wasn’t because he had any deal with Webb, he insisted, though he did say that “I guess it’s possible” that he had told Webb he would try to reduce his charge.

Jackson is Acquitted of Ethics Violation

None of this information was shared with defense attorneys in Willingham’s case. Jackson was eventually made a district court judge in Texas. 25 years after the trial where Willingham was convicted and 13 years after Willingham was killed by the State of Texas, the Texas State Bar finally brought ethics charges against Jackson. Jackson was acquitted by a jury of the ethics charges last week. Ironically, the key argument in Jackson’s trial for misconduct was the reliability of the key witness against him – Johnny Webb.

In closing arguments Tuesday afternoon, Joe Byrne said Webb, who was the prosecution’s star witness, doesn’t exactly have a close relationship with the truth. For two days during the 12-day trial, Byrne covered Webb’s mental illness, bipolar disorder, his multiple psych meds as well as his “crimes of moral turpitude,” which include drugs, robbery, burglary and theft. Webb also pleaded the Fifth Amendment as his answer to many questions.

“He is a pathological liar,” Byrne said. “He will say anything about anyone to shift his situation. He blames others when he gets in trouble … but he’s not dumb. Don’t underestimate him.”

The other handful of witnesses called by the state really helped make a stronger case for the defense, Byrne argued. He maintained that everyone who testified both for the prosecution and for the defense — all except Johnny Webb — all said John Jackson is a good guy who “tells the truth.” Byrne said Pat Bachelor, who was the district attorney at the time, had a strict rule, which was “no deals for snitches,” as well as an open file policy. Bachelor said on the stand that Jackson “is the gold standard.”

Byrne also said in closing arguments that Robert Hinton of the Innocence Project said himself that Webb’s testimony was a “sociopathic story,” and that Jackson is a man of “high character.”

Most likely, this will be the end of the Willingham saga. A man’s family died in front of him as his home burned. He was framed and murdered himself by the State of Texas. The state’s governor not only refused to stop the execution but later actively worked to cover up the fact of the wrongful execution. The prosecutor who sent Willingham to his death was rewarded with a judgeship and has now been acquitted of wrongdoing based on the unreliability of the very same jailhouse snitch that the prosecutor used to send Willingham to his death.

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