In 2004, Texas executed Cameron Todd Willingham, who was convicted and ultimately executed for what the State of Texas insists was the December 1991 arson-murder of his three young children. Willingham was almost certainly innocent, as WC has written before. Willingham was convicted based on junk arson science, the testimony of a jailhouse snitch, and the legal malpractice of the prosecutor.1
The prosecutor was John Jackson, the District Attorney for Navarro County, Texas.
Jackson made a deal with a jailhouse snitch who agreed to testify against Willingham. Jackson then hid that deal from Willingham’s defense attorneys. It’s a clear violation of both law and ethics. The Texas Bar Association says that Jackson then took extraordinary measures over the next two decades to conceal his deceitful actions.
And now, finally, Jackson – it’s now Judge John Jackson – is being held to account for his crime. Jackson is on trial in the same courthouse where he obtained the conviction of Willingham.
The snitch was Johnny Webb. In Willingham’s trial, Jackson called Webb to testify that while Webb was locked up in the county jail on an aggravated robbery charge, his fellow cell mate, Willingham, for no particular reason, but in great detail, confessed to Webb on the alleged arson. Under questioning by Jackson, Webb testified that he did not expect any benefit in exchange for his testimony.
In the years since Willingham’s execution, a lot of evidence has emerged showing that was a lie. Records amassed by the Texas 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.
Jackson is finally on trial for his misconduct in the Willingham case. Oddly, Jackson’s trial is public, his fate in the hands of a common jury. In Texas, a lawyer being charged with ethical violations is given a choice of how they want to proceed. They can have their case heard before a jury in trial court, as Jackson has chosen, or heard in private by a panel made up largely of other attorneys. Since 2013, just three prosecutors have chosen the public option. Jackson is the fourth.
There is clearly a calculus involved in Jackson’s decision. “Getting in front of a panel is quicker, but if you feel like you’re not going to do well there, you take it to trial court,” Houston criminal defense attorney John Floyd told the Corsicana Daily Sun.
Prosecutions of law enforcement officials are tough. Juries like to think the cops and prosecutors are the good guys. But the case against Jackson is pretty strong, and defense counsel is attempt to shift the case to a trial of Willingham’s alleged guilt, a tacit admission of Jackson’s misconduct.
As WC writes this post, the trial is still underway. WC will endeavor to report the outcome.
- The Governor who signed the death warrant, denied clemency and ignored his own forensic commission’s conclusion that the arson “science” was bogus was the man who is now U.S. Secretary of Energy Rick Perry. ↩