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State Bar of Texas: Prosecutor Hid Evidence of Executed Man’s Innocence

Cameron Todd Willingham with then-wife Stacy Kuykendall and their three children, days before the children died in a house fire for which their father was executed. (Family photo)

Cameron Todd Willingham with then-wife Stacy Kuykendall and their three children, days before the children died in a house fire for which their father was executed. (Family photo)

The State Bar of Texas has filed a formal accusation of misconduct against a former prosecutor who allegedly withheld crucial evidence that could have proven the innocence of a man who was executed for murdering his three daughters in 2004.

The Marshall Project reports the state bar filed a disciplinary petition in Navarro County District Court, accusing John H. Jackson of withholding exculpatory evidence that could have spared the life of Cameron Todd Willingham, who was executed on February 17, 2004 after being convicted of setting a 1991 house fire that killed his three young daughters.

Willingham’s conviction was based on two prosecutorial pillars—the testimony (since recanted) of a mentally ill, drug-addicted jailhouse informant who received leniency in exchange for implicating the defendant, and the findings of local fire investigators, which were blasted by numerous, more experienced experts as “junk science.” Both prosecution points were so flawed that, if not proving innocence, were certainly enough to raise very serious doubts about Willingham’s guilt.

“Before, during, and after the 1992 trial, [Jackson] knew of the existence of evidence that tended to negate the guilt of Willingham, and failed to disclose that evidence to defense counsel,” the state bar petition asserts.

The bar action, which was filed March 5, states Jackson repeatedly intervened to help jailhouse snitch Johnny E. Webb in return for his testimony that Willingham had confessed to him while both were locked up in the same jail in Corsicana. Webb has since recanted his testimony, admitting that Jackson coerced him into lying about Willingham’s ‘confession’ by threatening him with a lengthy prison sentence for a robbery he’d committed. The prosecutor also promised to shorten Webb’s sentence if he bore false witness against Willingham.

Last year, the Innocence Project, which had long championed Willingham’s case, and the Marshall Project uncovered new evidence, including notes, letters and documents detailing Jackson’s extensive efforts on behalf of leniency for Webb.

Willingham’s case gained international attention after a September 2009 New Yorker article by David Grann cast serious doubts on the prosecution’s case, especially the findings of local fire investigators.

In August 2009, Dr. Craig Beyler, an investigator hired by the Texas Forensic Science Commission to review Willingham’s case, released a damning report concluding “a finding of arson could not be sustained” by scientific analysis. The commission report found investigators ignored the scientific method for analyzing fires and instead relied on “folklore” and “myths.”

The commission’s findings reflected those of Dr. Gerald Hurst, an Austin fire investigator who reviewed the case while Willingham was on Death Row and concluded there was “no evidence of arson.” Texas Governor Rick Perry, a tough-on-crime Republican who left office last year after having overseen more executions—278—than any governor in modern history, dismissed a plea from Hurst, arrogantly ignoring the findings of nationally respected scientists, who he called “supposed experts.” Perry allowed the execution to proceed.

“The only statement I want to make is that I am an innocent man, convicted of a crime I did not commit,” said Willingham, strapped down in Texas’ death chamber before receiving the lethal injection that ended his life. “I have been persecuted for 12 years for something I did not do.”

“The whole case was based on the purest form of junk science,” Hurst later said. “There was no item of evidence that indicated arson.”

Jackson, the target of the disciplinary petition, agreed in a 2009 ABC News interview that the Texas Forensic Science Commission report “calls into very serious question the methodology [of the] arson investigation.”

“Without question, the techniques that were used were flawed,” Jackson acknowledged. “Some of the evidence is certainly less credible than what I would have liked to see.”

Jackson, and Perry, noted that Willingham’s history of violence toward his wife, Stacy Kuykendall, whom he beat while pregnant, was proof enough of his evil character. But Kuykendall insisted Willingham would never hurt his children, and he was on trial for murdering his children, not beating his wife.

As the Texas Forensic Science Commission began investigating the Willingham case in 2008, hiring Beyler to examine the evidence used to convict Willingham of deliberately setting fire to his home, Perry replaced three of its members whose terms were expiring, effectively killing the investigation.

But so strong was the evidence pointing to Willingham’s innocence that the case simply would not die. In 2010, Judge Charlie Baird wrote a posthumous exoneration order that would have officially cleared Willingham of the murders.

“This Court orders the exoneration of Cameron Todd Willingham for murdering his three daughters,” Baird’s order stated. “In light of the overwhelming, credible, and reliable evidence presented by the Petitioners, this Court holds that the State of Texas wrongfully executed Cameron Todd Willingham.”

But Judge Baird’s exoneration order was blocked by higher court, which questioned his authority to examine the capital case.

If found guilty, Jackson could be disbarred, but he retired in 2012 so such action would have little effect.

***

2009 ABC News report on the “deeply flawed” evidence used to convict Willingham:

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