Cameron Todd Willingham’s case is one of those that chills me to the bone. I defend capital murder (“death penalty”) cases and the thought of the state executing an innocent man is one of the things that motivates me to fight and fight hard for my clients. Now the State Bar of Texas (the organization that accredits and disciplines Texas lawyers) has filed an official grievance against Willingham’s prosecutor, accusing him of obstruction of justice, making false statements, and concealing evidence that shed doubt on Williingham’s guilt.
Willingham was accused, convicted, and sentenced to die for intentionally starting the house-fire that killed his children. From the beginning to the end, Willingham maintained his innocence. Willingham’s case had received national attention for years, especially when Willingham was executed in 2004 after then-Governor Rick Perry ignored an independent arson investigator’s report concluding there was no evidence that the fire was intentionally set. Five years later, when Texas’ state forensic commission was reviewing the case, Perry – calling Willingham a “monster” – stacked the deck by replacing several members of the commission and putting the hawkish (and notorious ex-prosecutor) John Bradley in charge. Shocking absolutely no one, the commission failed to reach any conclusion on whether the investigation of the Willingham case was negligent or whether misconduct had been committed.
Since then, it’s slowly come out that there was even more slimy underhandedness going on in this case. The prosecutor, John H. Jackson, used a jail informant named Johnny Webb against Willingham. At trial Webb testified that Willingham confessed to him in jail. Webb has since recanted that testimony, saying that Jackson coerced him to lie, threatening a long prison term if he didn’t participate and promising a reduced sentence if he lied for the state. The prosecution also repeatedly intervened to help the informant in exchange for his testimony. Jackson denies coercing Webb, but, in my opinion, his credibility is questionable at best being that for years he hid evidence that could’ve proven Willingham’s innocence.
I understand lawyers getting personally invested in their cases. It’s an understandable, and arguably necessary, part of the adversarial process. But at the same time, in criminal cases (especially when it comes to prosecutors), it has potentially dire consequences. If a prosecutor gets so intertwined with his or her case that he/she loses sight of justice, of integrity, of basic humanity, then everyone loses.