Death by Fire: An Update

October 7, 2014
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Did Texas execute an innocent man?

This was the question FRONTLINE set out to investigate in 2010, when we began reporting on the case of Cameron Todd Willingham.

At the time, the 2004 execution of Willingham — who was convicted for the arson deaths of his three young children — was at the center of a national debate over the death penalty.

Our film, Death by Fire raised questions about the evidence used to convict Willingham, in particular investigators’ reliance on an outdated understanding of the science in arson cases.

But new questions are now being raised about a different piece of evidence — the testimony of a key witness in the case, Johnny Webb. At Willingham’s trial, Webb testified that the defendant had confessed to him while in jail. Webb told the jury that Willingham said he set the fire in order to conceal the fact that his wife had injured one of the children and also said Willingham admitted to using lighter fluid to start the fire.

Earlier this year, Webb changed his story. In a series of taped interviews with the Innocence Project, a legal advocacy group, Webb said that he lied about Willingham’s guilt and that former prosecutor John H. Jackson promised to help him in an unrelated robbery case.

It was a shocking charge, and one we decided to investigate ourselves. So last month, Death by Fire director and producer Jessie Deeter returned to Texas to see if she could find Webb and get him to sit down in front of our cameras once again. He agreed — and to our surprise this time he wanted to reveal his face.

The Innocence Project has filed an official grievance against Jackson on behalf of the Willingham family. In a lengthy response, Jackson insists that there was no deal and questions the reliability of Webb, whom he describes as a “drug-addled, mentally skewed and obviously manipulative witness.”

The Texas State Bar is now reviewing the matter and will determine whether to launch a full investigation of Jackson’s conduct.

DOCUMENTS

The Innocence Project’s Grievance Against John Jackson



John Jackson’s Response to the Innocence Project’s Complaint
(courtesy: John Jackson)

A 1995 Letter From Charles Pearce to Johnny Webb (EXCLUSIVE)
(courtesy: Johny Webb)

A 1996 Letter From Charles Pearce to Johnny Webb
(courtesy: Johnny Webb)

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