A Texas jury on Wednesday found that a former state prosecutor did not commit misconduct in the 1992 death penalty trial of Cameron Todd Willingham, a man who was convicted of — and later executed for — setting a fire that killed his three daughters, outcomes that were based in part on jailhouse testimony recanted after his death.
Jurors in Navarro County rejected claims by the State Bar of Texas that former prosecutor John Jackson made false statements, concealed evidence favorable to Willingham’s defense and obstructed justice.
The state bar accused Jackson of failing to disclose to Willingham’s attorneys that jailhouse informant Johnny Webb had been promised favorable treatment on an aggravated robbery conviction in return for testimony at Willingham’s trial. The prosecution’s case against Willingham was two-pronged: testimony from fire investigators that debris analysis showed that the blaze was deliberately set and Webb’s assertion that Willingham had confessed.
Webb testified at Willingham’s trial that while the two were held in the Navarro County jail, Willingham confessed to setting the December 1991 fire that killed his three daughters in the family’s home in Corsicana, Tex. Willingham was convicted and was executed on Feb. 17, 2004.
Weeks before the execution, an independent fire expert concluded there was no evidence the fire was deliberately set. Other experts during the following decade also reached the same conclusion.
Webb recanted his testimony in 2014, saying that Willingham did not confess and that he had testified after Jackson promised him leniency on his own criminal charge. Jackson testified during the just-concluded two-week trial that he had made no deal with Webb. He said he only made efforts to obtain a reduction of Webb’s conviction from aggravated robbery to simple robbery and an early release from prison because Webb was being threatened there.
The verdict clearing Jackson was a defeat for the state bar, which filed a complaint in 2015 seeking to disbar Jackson. The complaint was the culmination of more than a decade of investigation by the Innocence Project, which unsuccessfully sought a posthumous pardon for Willingham.
During the bar complaint trial, state bar lawyers showed jurors excerpts of Webb’s pretrial video deposition, during which he said that he lied at Willingham’s trial after Jackson promised him favorable treatment.
When Webb took the witness stand, he refused to answer questions about whether he had lied at Willingham’s trial and invoked his Fifth Amendment protection against self-incrimination more than 50 times. He also repeatedly responded to questions saying that he could not recall or did not remember enough to answer.
The trial was attended by a group of supporters of Jackson, who was elected a Navarro County district judge after Willingham’s trial.
The state bar filed its complaint against Jackson after the Innocence Project uncovered documents, including letters from Webb to Jackson and letters from Jackson seeking an early release from prison for Webb. The bar accused Jackson of violating several sections of the Texas Disciplinary Rules of Professional Conduct that prohibit making false statements to a judge and obstructing justice.
The state bar previously was successful in obtaining the disbarment of two other former prosecutors for making false statements and obstructing justice in separate cases that later resulted in exonerations. One was for a man who had been sent to death row in Texas for the murders of six people; a special prosecutor found him to have been innocent.
The National Registry of Exonerations, a national database of 2,024 wrongful convictions in the United States since 1989, reports that official misconduct, which includes misconduct by prosecutors, police and other government officials, has been a contributing factor in about half the cases.
Maurice Possley investigated the Willingham case for the Marshall Project in 2014 in a collaboration with The Washington Post. He also writes for the National Registry of Exonerations.