Yesterday a new nonprofit news organization focused on reporting on the criminal justice system published its first story, and it centers on the case of Cameron Todd Willingham, the Corsicana man who was executed for setting fire to his house to kill his three young children in 1991. We’ve discussed the case before, which received long-form treatment several years back from the New Yorker, as well as episodes of Nightline and Frontline. You’ll also likely remember how Gov. Rick Perry replaced members of the Texas Forensic Science Commission before they could consider new evidence that cast doubt on the science that was used at the time of Willingham’s trial to determine that arson was the cause of the fire.
Well, the news in the Marshall Project piece is that a jailhouse informant, Johnny E. Webb, has recanted his testimony and that there’s evidence — despite what the prosecutor has insisted for 20 years — that a deal was made to lessen the informant’s jail time in exchange for saying that Willingham had confessed to him:
In taped interviews, Webb, who has previously both recanted and affirmed his testimony, 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 uncovered letters and court files show that Jackson worked diligently to intercede for Webb after his testimony and to coordinate with the rancher, Charles S. Pearce Jr., to keep the mercurial informer in line.
The Innocence Project filed a grievance against Jackson with the State Bar of Texas, saying that he violated his ethical and constitutional obligations.
Willingham was executed in 2004.