Newly Discovered Evidence Points to Possible False Testimony at Willingham’s Trial and Possible Prosecutorial Misconduct that May Have Contributed to His Wrongful Execution
(Austin, TX; September 27, 2013) – Relatives for Cameron Todd Willingham were joined by exoneree Michael Morton at a press conference at the Texas capitol today to urge the state to conduct an investigation into Willingham’s wrongful execution. Last year, Willingham’s family filed a posthumous pardon petition before the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles asking that the state pardon Willingham, who was executed in 2004 for the arson murder of his three daughters despite compelling evidence of his innocence. The Innocence Project filed an amended petition today on behalf of the Willingham family presenting newly discovered evidence that points to possible false testimony at his trial and possible prosecutorial misconduct that may have contributed to his wrongful execution.
“Todd’s dying wish was that we help clear his name, and we can’t let this go until the state acknowledges the grave injustice that Todd suffered,” said Eugenia Willingham, Willingham’s stepmother. Patricia Willingham Cox, Willingham’s cousin added, “The more we learn about Todd’s case, the more we see how tragically the system failed him. The Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles has the power to finally conduct a thorough investigation into his case, and we urge it to do so for the sake of all Texans who deserve a clemency system that values justice over mere finality.”
Following the press conference, exoneree Michael Morton walked with Willingham’s surviving relatives to deliver a letter to Gov. Perry asking for a meeting with him to explain why a hearing is needed. A copy of the letter is available at www.innocenceproject.org/willingham.
“There are only two mistakes one can make on the road to truth: not going all the way and not starting,” said Barry Scheck, Co-Director of the Innocence Project, which is affiliated with Cardozo School of Law. “The reason an investigation is so critical in this case isn’t to affix blame on Gov. Perry or any one individual. Everyone has responsibility if not for making errors then for failing to detect them.”
Willingham was at home with his three daughters when his home in Corsicana burned to the ground on the morning of December 23, 1991. He managed to escape, but his children did not survive. He always maintained his innocence but was convicted of arson murder in 1992 based largely on the testimony of the Assistant Fire Chief Douglas Fogg and the Texas Fire Marshal Manuel R. Vasquez who testified that there was evidence that the fire had been intentionally set. In the days leading up to Willingham’s execution, his attorneys sent Governor Rick Perry and the court a report from Gerald Hurst, a nationally recognized arson expert, saying that Willingham’s conviction was based on erroneous forensic analysis. Documents obtained by the Innocence Project show that state officials received that report in advance of his execution date. Yet despite Hurst’s report, Willingham was executed and pronounced dead on February 17, 2004 at 6:20 pm.
The only other evidence linking Willingham to the fire was the testimony of a jailhouse informant, Johnny Webb, who claimed that Willingham told him within earshot of several law enforcement employees that he committed the crime to protect his wife who had injured or killed one of the children the night before. Prior to Willingham’s execution, Webb acknowledged in a handwritten “motion to recant” that he lied about the confessions, stating “I was forced [sic] to testify against Willingham by the D.A.s [sic] office and other officials. I was made to lie. Willingham is innocent of all charges.” Notations on the motion indicate that it was provided in 2000 to then Judge John Jackson, who had been the lead prosecutor in the Willingham’s case. But this motion does not appear to have been filed in either Willingham’s or Webb’s case file. Further, no one representing Willingham was told about this recantation. Although the Navarro County District Attorney’s Office was aware of the recantation, the District Attorney’s office continued to rely on Webb’s testimony in the hours leading up to Willingham’s execution, claiming that the report submitted by Hurst, which stated that the fire testimony was scientifically invalid, was irrelevant because Willingham had confessed to Webb.
“It is especially troubling that officials in Navarro County continued to rely on the testimony of Johnny Webb even after the district attorney’s office knew that he had recanted,” said Gerry Goldstein of Goldstein, Goldstein & Hilley.
At trial, Webb and then prosecutor Jackson assured the jury that Webb expected nothing in return for his testimony. But newly discovered evidence contradicts these assurances, and Jackson appears to have assisted Webb in dealings with the Texas Department of Criminal Justice for years after the trial. In a 1996 letter to a prison official, Jackson wrote that he was sorry to bring up another Johnny Webb problem, indicating that he had intervened on Webb’s behalf before.
Other new evidence also points to possible efforts by Jackson and the Navarro County authorities to reduce Webb’s sentence. Roughly five years after Willingham’s trial, the Navarro County District Attorney, the District Judge, and the Navarro County Sheriff asked the Board of Pardons and Paroles to commute Webb’s sentence from 15 years to 5 years. Although the letters told the Board that the request was based on new information from the victim, Jackson told a prison warden in a letter addressing a problem Webb was having with his property that the commutation was in connection with a capital murder case. Around the same time, Jackson obtained an amendment to the aggravated robbery judgment that reduced the charge from the first degree felony of aggravated robbery to the second degree crime of simple robbery. Although Jackson explained this change in a 1996 letter to the Board of Pardons and Paroles as based on a review of the Navarro County records and those of Webb’s criminal defense lawyer, all of the public documents relating to Webb’s case indicate that he was charged and pled guilty to the first degree felony of aggravated robbery. When asked at Willingham’s trial, Webb clearly testified that he had been convicted of an aggravated offense.
“In recent years, our state has made great strides in heeding the lessons learned from wrongful convictions,” said Sen. Rodney Eillis (Dist. 13), who is also Chair of the Innocence Project’s Board of Directors. “But the Willingham case remains a powerful reminder of how much more needs to be done to restore public’s trust in the system.”
After Willinghams’s execution, the Innocence Project asked the then newly formed Texas Forensic Science Commission to investigate Willingham’s case and the case of Ernest Willis who was convicted based on similarly flawed evidence but later exonerated for the arson murder that put him on death row. During the course of that multi-year investigation, nine of the nation’s leading arson scientists reviewed the evidence in Willingham case and all agreed that the original testimony of the fire investigators was based on outdated arson science. A summary of these findings is available at http://www.innocenceproject.org/willingham.The Commission was ultimately barred by the Texas Attorney General from making a finding on whether the state was negligent in the wrongful execution of Willingham, however the Commission acknowledged that unreliable arson science facilitated Willingham’s conviction and recommended that the state conduct a review to determine if there are other people in Texas prisons who were wrongly convicted based on bad arson science.
A copy of the petition filed today, a summary of the scientific reports and a timeline of the case is available at www.innocenceproject.org/willingham.
In addition to Scheck and Goldstein, the lawyers representing Willingham’s family include Innocence Project Staff Attorney Bryce Benjet, Daniel Greenberg, Robert J. Ward and Meghan M. Breen of Schulte Roth & Zabel, and Kathryn Kase, Executive Director of the Texas Defender Service.