New Reasons to Think Texas Executed an Innocent Man

The troubling case of Cameron Todd Willingham.

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 FrontlineYou’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.


  • Former Texan

    While I believe that Willingham was unjustly convicted and executed, Webb has proven that he’s not trustworthy. There are plenty of facts that support Willingham without giving Webb any credit. He sounds like an opportunist looking for more attention.

  • Dubious Brother

    Wasn’t it reported that Willingham confessed to his ex-wife right before his execution.

    • Jason Heid
    • Glenn Hunter

      Yes, that’s right, Dubious. But the Innocence Project has been trying to say that doesn’t mean anything because she’s told different stories over the years. (For some reason, the fact that Johnny Webb, the star of today’s article, has done exactly the same thing doesn’t seem to matter to them quite so much.)

  • Jason Heid

    Yep, Webb’s testimony seems wholly unreliable, given that his story has changed back and forth in the last 20 years. The same for anything that Willingham’s ex-wife says now, given that even after she publicly said she thought he was guilty, she was still telling media outlets that Willingham was insisting he was innocent.

    Then there’s the fact that the Texas Forensic Science Commission ultimately agreed that the fire science evidence used to convict Willingham was faulty:

    Doesn’t that all raise pretty serious, reasonable doubts about Willingham’s guilt?

  • Dubious Brother

    The innocense project says: ” On one fact, Willingham changed his story. He admitted that he exaggerated having gone inside the babies’ room (he said he wanted to sound brave and feared that people would think he was a coward for not going into the burning room). ” And that is ok?

    No mention of the 3rd daughter that was asleep in his bed with him – he tucked her in before he escaped the fire.

  • Jason Heid

    Willingham could well have been a louse who cowardly let his children die while he was saving his own skin.

    But he wasn’t sentenced to death for being a louse or a coward. He was sentenced to death for intentionally setting the fire to kill his children. The scientific evidence doesn’t back up the basis for that conviction.

    I hope you don’t want to live in state that can legally kill you for merely being a louse or a coward.

  • Dubious Brother

    You can call a father that tucks his daughter into a bed in a burning house and leaves her there to die a louse or a coward but the jury called him a murderer.

    The scientific evidence does not prove that he did not start the fire.