John Jackson is the Texas prosecutor who convicted Cameron Todd Willingham of murdering his family by setting his own house on fire. Jackson then persuaded a jury to send Willingham to his death. We now know that Willingham was likely innocent, convicted on forensic evidence now known to be junk science and snitch testimony now known to be false.
We also now know that Jackson is accused of hiding exculpatory evidence from Willingham’s attorneys. In a highly unusual move, the Texas bar is trying to bring sanctions against Jackson. More unusual still, the procedure is being done in public, in front of a lay jury. The Intercept’s Jordan Smith is at the trial.
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.”
Jackson and the snitch, a man named Johnny Webb, corresponded for years after Willingham’s conviction, with Jackson working feverishly to get Webb’s sentence reduced, likely out of fear that Webb would go public. He finally did, leading to the bar’s move against Jackson. Smith also hunted Webb down before the trial:
It was late morning by the time I parked across the street from the house I would later find out belongs to Webb’s mom. The crumbing bungalow had seen better days. A broken windowpane was haphazardly covered from the inside. A sign on a screen door warned that because of the rise in the price of ammo, there would be no warning shot. Two cats slept on the porch next to a half-eaten bowl of kibble. No one answered the door. As I turned to walk back to the car, I spotted a man across the street smoking a cigarette and watching me. I recognized him. “Are you Johnny Webb?” I called out. “I don’t know,” he said. “Am I?”
Indeed, he was. I introduced myself as a reporter and he recoiled, looking at me suspiciously. “I can’t give any interviews,” he said. I understand, I replied. But then he began talking. I asked him if he was prepared to testify in court; yes, he said, but he planned to invoke his Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination. Did that mean that what he’d said about being coerced was untrue, I asked him. He said that talking to the Innocence Project, “trying to fix things,” had cost him. He’s lost work — the contractor he worked with had to let him go, he said, once his boss’s well-connected clients found out Webb was on the crew — and wants nothing more than to get this behind him, get out of Corsicana, and start his life anew. “I thought I could change things,” he lamented about his involvement in the Willingham case. “I’ve learned that one man can’t.”
We’ve noted here at The Watch on several occasions just how rare it is for a state bar to sanction a prosecutor. It’s no different in Texas. Smith reports that of the 2,000 or so attorneys against whom the Texas bar has sought sanctions since 2011, just 10 of the efforts resulted in disciplinary action against a prosecutor.