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An innocent man

Texas prosecutor John Jackson is facing charges of "obstruction of justice, making false statements, and concealing evidence" favorable to the defense in obtaining the conviction of Cameron Todd Willingham, who, by virtually every objective measure, was innocent of the crime he was convicted of.  Jackson can take some solace that the charges against him are being brought by the state bar, and the worst Jackson faces is the loss of his law license.  Willingham lost his life.

Willingham was prosecuted in 1991 for setting his home on fire, killing his three young daughters.  Willingham escaped the fire with only minor burns, so the focus of the investigation settled on him, despite the lack of any clear motive.  The fire department investigators concluded from char patterns on the floor that an accelerant had been used.  The obligatory jailhouse snitch appeared in the form of Johnny Webb, who claimed that Willingham confessed to him that he set the fire to hide an injury or death of one of the girls, caused by his wife.  And then, of course, there was James Grigson, "Dr. Death," who testified in virtually every Texas capital case that the defendant was an incorrigible psycho.  He told the jury that Willingham's tattoo of a skull and serpent fit the profile of a sociopath, and that Willingham's Led Zeppelin poster was an indicative of "cultive-type" activities.

Grigson was subsequently expelled by the American Psychiatric Association, but he,, like Webb and the fire investigators, served his purpose in Willingham's case:  after an hour's deliberation, the jury convicted Willingham, and then sentenced him to death.

The case began to unravel in 2004, when noted fire investigator Gerald Hurst reviewed the arson report in Willingham's case and concluded that it didn't show evidence of arson.  That report was presented to Texas Governor Rick Perry on the day Willingham was scheduled for execution, but Perry declined to issue a stay; Willingham was killed that night.

But that didn't end the matter.  A Chicago Tribune article in 2009 noted that nine of the nation's top fire scientists had reviewed the evidence of arson in Willingham's case, and had "all concluded that the original investigators relied on outdated theories and folklore to justify the determination of arson."  A report conducted at the behest of the Texas Forensic Science Commission determined that the testimony from the fire marshal at Willingham's trial was "hardly consistent with a scientific mind-set and is more characteristic of mystics or psychics."  (This New Yorker article of the same year presents an exhaustive review of the fire evidence, and indeed of the whole case.)

But what about the snitch?  Ah, here's where Jackson enters, stage right.

Jackson had told the jury at trial that Webb hadn't been given any consideration for his testimony.  Two months after Willingham's trial, a note was placed in Webb's file that "per John Jackson," Webb should be given a lesser robbery charge than the one he'd pled guilty to earlier that year.  Another note was placed in Webb's file with the district attorney that said that Webb's charges would be lessened "based on co-op in Willingham."

In 1996, Webb got increasingly antsy about still being in prison, and wrote to Jackson that the Department of Corrections "was not following the agreement we entered" to lower the charge, and threatened to make the deal public.  Shortly after he received the letter, Jackson visited the judge who'd sentenced Webb -- and who had also presided over Willingham's trial -- to change Webb's conviction from 1st degree robbery to 2nd degree robbery, making him immediately eligible for parole.  In a letter to the parole board, Jackson recommended Webb be released.

That was not the only assistance Jackson offered; Charles Pearce, a wealthy Texas rancher, was giving money to Webb, and Jackson acknowledged in other letters that he'd met regularly with Pearce to discuss his contributions to Webb.  Webb nevertheless recanted in 2000, while in prison on a new charge, stating in a letter to Jackson that Willingham had never confessed to him and that Webb had made the whole thing up.

None of this -- the letters between Webb and Jackson, the letter to the parole board, Webb's recantation -- was ever turned over to the defense, as the law required it to be.  It was discovered in the prosecutor's files years after Texas killed -- maybe murdered isn't too strong a word -- Todd Willingham.

Jackson has denied the allegations, and demanded a jury trial for the sanctions hearing.  That's the way things work in Texas.

Glenn Ford was luckier than Cameron Todd Willingham.  Ford was convicted and sentenced to death in 1984, but was released after spending 30 years in death row when the district attorney concluded that there was "credible evidence" that Ford was neither "present at, nor a participant in, the robbery and murder" that got him sentenced to death.

And Glenn Ford's prosecutor, Marty Stroud, is a lot different from John Jackson, too.  In a letter he wrote to the Shreveport Times, he lamented the role he played in innocent man to prison for three decades, acknowledging that he'd ignored leads he now believes he should have followed, and admitting that "I was not as interested in justice as I was in winning."  After the verdict, Stroud is ashamed to admit, he went out drinking with other prosecutors to celebrate their victory.  He's now an opponent of the death penalty.

I'm not figuring on seeing a letter like that from John Jackson.


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