New Developments in Willingham Case, Ten Years After Execution

The Innocence Project has asked the State Bar of Texas to investigate former Navarro County prosecutor John Jackson relating to the arson case of Todd Willingham. Convicted of setting a fire on Dec. 23, 1991, that resulted in the death of his three young children — Amber, 2, and twins Karmon and Kameron, 1 — Willingham was executed on February 17, 2004.

Expert forensic testimony provided at the Willingham trial that equated burn patterns to the use of accelerants has been debunked by contemporary forensic science. Now, an article by Maurice Possley for The Marshall Project published in The Washington Post, details new evidence that undermines the second significant evidence that supported the conviction of Willingham, testimony from a jailhouse informant.

Newly discovered letters and court documents as well as previously unreported benefits allegedly provided over many years to the jailhouse witness put in question the reliability of his testimony. Johnny E. Webb, a 22-year-old drug addict, who was in Navarro County Jail with Willingham, testified that Willingham had confessed to setting the fire that killed his children. Webb also claimed before the jurors that he had been promised nothing from prosecutor John H. Jackson in return for his testimony.

In the years since Willingham’s conviction, Webb has flip-flopped over the veracity of his testimony. According to writer Possley, recently in taped interviews Webb “gives his first detailed account of how he lied on the witness stand in return for efforts by the former prosecutor, John H. Jackson, to reduce Webb’s prison sentence for robbery and to arrange thousands of dollars in support from a wealthy Corsicana rancher. Newly unrecovered letters and court files show that Jackson worked diligently to intercede for Webb after his testimony and to coordinate with the rancher, Charles C. Pearce Jr., to keep the mercurial informer in line.”

Jackson, who later served as a Navarro County judge for 16 years and is now retired, has said that he helped Webb because he felt Webb was at risk in prison after he had testified for the prosecution in the Willingham case.

According to writer Possley, Webb lives today with his wife and mother but faces unresolved criminal charges in Navarro County. Webb has said in interviews with the Innocence Project that he has wanted “to come forward…for a long, long time about certain things that no one’s ever known.” He said, “This has been something that’s pretty much destroyed my life for 22 years.”

Willingham proclaimed his innocence up to and including the day he was executed.

Read the Innocence Project’s Grievance submitted on July 25, 2014, to the Texas Bar here.

Read an ABA Journal article on the Innocence Project’s latest effort in the case by Debra Cassens Weiss here.

Read The Washington Post article by Maurice Possley  here.

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