Justice for Todd Willingham Haunts Unethical Prosecutor

The wheels of justice turn inexorably slow, but they do turn.

The day of justice reckoning has arrived for John Jackson, a former district attorney and district judge in Navarro County that encompasses the small Texas town, Corsicana.

As a prosecutor, Jackson knowingly conspired to send an innocent man to his death in the Texas house in February 2004. The New York-based Innocence Project has work diligently for more than a decade to have the former prosecutor held accountable for his egregious misconduct.

The more than likely innocent man, who professed his innocence until his last breath, was Cameron Todd Willingham. We have written rather extensively about the Willingham case (here, here, here).

Todd Willingham Maintained Innocence Until His Last Breath

The bare essentials of the Willingham case are these: On the morning of December 23, 1991, a fire broke out at the Willingham residence. Willingham and his three small children were in the residence when the fire broke out. He escaped the flames, after suffering first-and second-degree burns; his three children did not.

Based upon evidence and information provided to his office by the Corsicana Fire Department and a Texas fire marshal investigator, District Attorney Jackson filed three capital murder charges against Willingham in January 1992. Jackson offered Willingham a plea deal for a life sentence in exchange for a life sentence shortly after the indictment was returned. Willingham rejected the deal, professing his innocence.

Outdated, rejected Junk Science Contributes to Execution

The only evidence of arson/murder came from the late Deputy Fire Marshall Manuel Vasquez, who used outdated and widely rejected investigative procedures and forensic arson protocols to form the conclusion—one that he held until his death in 1994—that the fire which engulfed the Willingham residence was the result of arson.

The prosecutorial case against Willingham was weak, at best. Jackson needed more evidence, and he decided early in the prosecution that if he could not develop real evidence, he would manufacture false evidence.

Prosecution Adds Testimony of Lying Snitch to Seal the Deal

And that’s where the lying snitch Johnny Webb entered the tragic Willingham tragedy. In the spring of 1992, just months before Willingham’s scheduled August trial, Webb was sitting in the Navarro County jail awaiting a van ride to a state prison. He had recently been convicted of aggravated robbery and was definitely in the hunt for a way out of his predicament.

Cameron Todd Willingham presented a freedom opportunity for Johnny Webb, an experienced jailhouse snitch who knew how to weave a tale about false confessions. He was the kind of inmate corrupt prosecutors turn to when they desperately need a conviction in a high-profile case like Willingham’s and do not have real evidence to secure the conviction.

The prosecutor/snitch marriage between Jackson and Webb came as natural as honey from a bee. Who proposed to whom remains in dispute to this day. Webb says he was compelled by Jackson to create the false confession that Willingham allegedly made to him during a jailhouse conversation.

Snitch Testifies to Confession and Lies About Deal

What is not in dispute is this: Webb testified against Willingham at the August 1992 trial. He told the jury that Willingham had admitted to him that he set the fire that killed his three small children. The convicted felon also told the jury that he conveyed this information to Jackson; that he did not expect, nor was he ever promised that he would receive any benefit from Jackson in exchange for his testimony.

Just as Willingham’s confession was false, Webb’s testimony about no promised benefits was also false and Jackson knew it was false. The prosecutor knowingly let that perjured testimony go uncorrected to the Willingham jury.

n the years following Willingham’s 2004 execution, the Innocence Project uncovered correspondence between the prosecutor and snitch that spanned a decade. That correspondence reveals an unholy relationship between Jackson and Webb; one that led the prosecutor to help the snitch receive a reduced sentence.

The prosecutor/snitch marriage came to an end. The snitch decided to snitch on the prosecutor by admitting his testimony against Willingham was false and that it had been fabricated by Jackson.

Prosecutors Denies Existence of Deal

Jackson has vehemently denied these accusations made by his former witness for the prosecution.

As the marriage between the prosecutor/snitch unraveled, the Innocence Project filed an ethics complaint in July 2014 against Jackson with the State Bar of Texas. The Bar launched its own investigation and uncovered enough reliable evidence to file ethics violation charges against Jackson in March 2015. The former prosecutor and judge, who was once a prominent power in Navarro County, saw his career reduced to ashes by the same snitch he had used to help send an innocent man to his death.

State Bar Files Complaint Against Judge Jackson

A trial is now underway in a Corsicana courtroom—the very courtroom in which Jackson allegedly presented perjured testimony to convict Cameron Todd Willingham—to determine if the former prosecutor is guilty of the serious ethics violations brought against him by the Texas Bar. The evidence against him, as reported by countless media sources, is compelling and certainly too difficult for the Bar to ignore.

Whatever the ultimate finding by the Bar may be, the one thing that has evolved out of this tragedy, and others like it, is that the Texas Legislature enacted a jailhouse snitch corroboration statute in 2015.Article 38.075(a) of the Texas Code of Criminal Procedure provides:

“A defendant may not be convicted of an offense on the testimony of a person to whom the defendant made a statement against the defendant’s interest during a time when the person was imprisoned or confined in the same correctional facility as the defendant unless the testimony is corroborated by other evidence tending to connect the defendant with the offense committed.”

Todd Willingham Wrongfully Executed Based on Junk Science and Snitch Testimony

No one will ever truly know if Cameron Todd Willingham was innocent. We believe that he was. But what no one can doubt is that Willingham was convicted and put to his death based on indisputably flawed forensic evidence and the testimony of an admitted lying jailhouse snitch who had a corrupt and unethical relationship with a prosecutor.

Shadow of Rick Perry Remains

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.