Later On

A blog written for those whose interests more or less match mine.

Former Texas prosecutor sent a probably innocent man to his death and is now on trial

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It’s extremely rare for prosecutors (or police officers) to be held accountable for misconduct, but it’s happening now in Texas, though it’s still a long shot. Jordan Smith reports in The Intercept:

THE COURTHOUSE IN Corsicana, Texas, roughly 60 miles southeast of Dallas, has been meticulously restored to its original 1905 glory, a time when the county was awash in oil money. Its main courtroom has soaring, two-story pink walls and gold-flecked architectural details that frame the judge’s bench, witness stand, and jury box. For more than three decades, John Jackson worked this room (though during those years it was a far more utilitarian space), first as a prosecutor with the Navarro County district attorney’s office and later as an elected judge, until his retirement in 2012.

Last week he returned, this time as a defendant, facing charges brought by the State Bar of Texas, whose lawyers argue that Jackson violated basic legal ethics in connection with his conduct in prosecuting the county’s most notorious case, the death penalty trial of Cameron Todd Willingham, who was convicted and ultimately executed for what the state insists was the December 1991 arson-murder of his three young children in the home they shared just over a mile away.

Specifically, the state’s lawyers contend that Jackson made a deal with a jailhouse snitch who agreed to testify against Willingham and then hid that deal from Willingham’s defense attorneys — a clear violation of both law and ethics. They say that Jackson took extraordinary measures over the next two decades to conceal his deceitful actions.

“It is a duty of the prosecution — an ethical obligation — to turn over that evidence,” state bar lawyer Kristin Brady told jurors in her opening arguments last Wednesday afternoon. “For years he protected this snitch; for years. It wasn’t for [the snitch’s] protection, it was for his own protection.”

The prosecution of Willingham has been widely reported and litigated, in part because his conviction was secured on twin pillars of evidence known to wreak havoc in the criminal justice system: junk science and incentivized snitch testimony.

Where the junk science is concerned, there is now little question that the fire that killed Willingham’s children was not arson — caused, as the state claimed, by Willingham spreading lighter fluid around his house and setting it ablaze. Leading fire scientists have weighed in to say that the evidence the Corsicana Fire Department and Texas fire marshal investigator relied upon in fingering Willingham as the cause of the deadly blaze was based on outdated, discredited fire-science folklore.

It is the second basis of the prosecution, however, that underlies Jackson’s current civil disciplinary trial.

In short, lead prosecutor Jackson called a man named Johnny Webb to testify at Willingham’s 1992 trial to say that while he was locked up in the county jail on an aggravated robbery charge, his fellow inmate, Willingham, randomly, and in detail, confessed to Webb his alleged crime. Under questioning by Jackson, Webb asserted that he did not expect any benefit in exchange for his incriminating testimony.

In the years since Willingham’s 2004 execution, significant evidence has come to light indicating that was untrue. Records amassed by the bar association and the Innocence Project — including lengthy correspondence between Jackson and Webb spanning roughly a decade — strongly suggest not only that it was at least implied to Webb that he would receive a reduced sentence for his testimony, but also that Jackson went to great lengths to make that happen. Moreover, Webb now insists that his trial testimony was false and compelled by Jackson.

On the witness stand on April 27, Jackson vehemently denied the allegations.

Lawyers for the bar’s Office of the Chief Disciplinary Counsel have tried to make clear that they are not here to re-litigate the question of Willingham’s guilt or innocence, which they say is irrelevant. The sole issue at hand, they argue, is whether Jackson’s actions as they relate to his dealings with Webb violated legal ethics — so far to seemingly thin effect.

Indeed, where the bar attorneys have toed that straight-line, Joseph Byrne, Jackson’s attorney, has done his best to conflate the issue of Willingham’s guilt with Jackson’s innocence: The bar, he has suggested, is motivated only by an interest in tarring Jackson in order to demonstrate that his client — and the state of Texas — hastened the execution of an innocent man.

The Shoulders of a Jailhouse Snitch

It was roughly 10:30 a.m. on December 23, 1991, when the fire broke out in the five-room wood frame house on West 11th Ave. in Corsicana that Willingham shared with his wife, Stacy, and their three young daughters. The bodies of Willingham’s twin 1-year-old girls were found amid the charred remains of the house. They had perished in the fire. First responders later carried out the 2-year-old, who was still alive. She died at the hospital shortly thereafter, of smoke inhalation.

According to the local newspaper, Willingham was distraught at the scene. Sitting on the back of a fire truck, he was sobbing and screaming, “I want to see my babies!” He was taken to the hospital as well, where he was treated for first- and second-degree burns on his face, back, and hands, according to the Corsicana Daily Sun. At the time of the fire, Stacy was picking out Christmas presents for the kids at the local Salvation Army.

The heartbreaking tragedy brought a groundswell of local support. Firefighters and cops pledged to help the family make it through the holiday season. But the goodwill quickly disappeared. On January 8, 1992, Willingham was arrested, booked into jail, and charged with three counts of murder.

In the 16 days between the fire and Willingham’s arrest, things had changed significantly, primarily because of the assessment of the fire marshal investigator, Manuel Vasquez. According to Vasquez, there were telltale signs — among them, burn marks on the floor and so-called crazed glass — telling him this was no innocent blaze.

Meanwhile, witnesses at the scene — and people who observed Willingham in the days just after the fire — concluded that he wasn’t appropriately distraught and was seemingly unconcerned about what had happened. The elected district attorney announced that his office would seek death for the 23-year-old father.

After a two-day trial led by Jackson that summer, Willingham was found guilty and sent to death row. He was executed in February 2004, despite serious questions about the validity of the fire science that sent him there. In the intervening years, a number of experts reviewed the case, concluding that there was no evidence of arson. Instead, experts suggest the fire was more likely caused by a space heater or faulty wiring. In the absence of evidence of arson, the integrity of Willingham’s conviction rested squarely on the shoulders of a jailhouse snitch.

In the spring of 1992, Johnny Webb had just pleaded guilty to a charge of aggravated robbery; according to the plea, Webb had tried to rob a woman of her purse at knifepoint.

While he was awaiting transfer to prison, Webb met Willingham, who had been arrested and charged with murder roughly two months before. Webb was a jail trusty at the time, meaning he was allowed more freedom than a typical inmate and was tasked with daily chores — in this case, keeping the floors in the common area of the cellblock clean. That put him in daily contact with any number of inmates, including Willingham.

According to Webb’s account at Willingham’s trial, for the first month that Webb was around him, Willingham didn’t say much — only that he was having a difficult time sleeping and that he did not kill his children. One day that changed: Out of nowhere, Webb said Willingham confessed that he had set the fire in order to kill the kids — or, rather, to ensure that the authorities wouldn’t find out that one of them had been grievously injured, presumably by his wife Stacy, earlier that morning. Webb said that Willingham came home to find one of the children injured and set the fire to cover the abuse.

There was immediate reason to be suspicious of Webb’s account: None of the children showed any signs of abuse and Stacy wasn’t even at home when the fire broke out. There was but one detail in Webb’s story that dovetailed with the state’s theory of the case, the notion that Willingham had used an accelerant to start the blaze.

Under Jackson’s questioning, Webb testified that he was not coaxed by anyone to provide this story about Willingham nor promised anything in return for his testimony in the case. “As a matter of fact, I told you there is nothing I can do for you,” Jackson followed up.

“You said there was nothing that no one can do for me,” Webb affirmed. . .

Continue reading.

It gets worse and worse. I’m sure it will not happen, but I think in all fairness that Jackson should get the death penalty, in the interests of making the punishment fit the crime.

Written by LeisureGuy

3 May 2017 at 10:16 am

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