New Report Raises Questions About Guilt of Executed Texas Man

August 4, 2014

Cameron Todd Willingham was executed on Feb. 17, 2004 after he was found guilty of setting a fire that killed his three young children in December 1991.

Now, nearly 22 years after his trial and 10 years after his death, a new report raises questions about a major piece of evidence against Willingham: his alleged confession to a fellow inmate that he had set the fire.

Did Texas execute an innocent man? Watch Death by Fire, FRONTLINE’s examination of a conviction at the center of the national debate.

In the story, jointly published today by the The Marshall Project and The Washington Post, Johnny Webb, a prison informant who testified for the prosecution at Willingham’s trial, said that he lied about Willingham’s guilt in exchange for favorable treatment by the former prosecutor, John H. Jackson, in an unrelated robbery case.

In taped interviews with the Innocence Project, Webb, who testified that Willingham confessed to him about using an accelerant to start the fire, said Jackson showed him photos of Willingham’s daughters’ charred remains and told Webb the robbery charges against him would “disappear” if he testified against Willingham.

“‘Your story doesn’t have to match exactly’,” Webb said Jackson told him. “He says, ‘I want you to just say he put fires in the corners. I need you to be able to say that so we can convict him, otherwise we’re going to have a murderer running our streets.’”

The truth, Webb said, was that Willingham “never told me nothing.”

This isn’t the first time Webb has called his own testimony into question. In 2000, Webb filed a motion to recant, writing, “I was forced to testify against Mr. Willingham by the D.A.’s office and other officials. I was made to lie. Mr. Willingham is innocent of all charges.” Webb later withdrew the motion to recant and the document was never made part of Willingham’s court file or disclosed to his defense attorneys.

Newly discovered letters, court records and documents gathered by The Marshall Project reveal how Jackson interceded on Webb’s behalf over the course of several years, campaigning for his early release and putting him in touch with Charles S. Pearce Jr., who would act as a sort of benefactor for Webb.

Last month, the Innocence Project filed a grievance with the State Bar of Texas alleging that Jackson “illegally and unethically made an undisclosed deal with Johnny Webb and has continued to cover it up to this day.” It has called for a full investigation of the case.

According to the Marshall Project, Jackson did not “deny going out of his way to help Webb,” and said that he did so because he believed other inmates were threatening Webb because of his cooperation.

As, FRONTLINE reported in Death by Fire questions of Willingham’s guilt have lingered since his trial. The 1992 report that ruled the fire arson was discredited by arson expert Gerald Hurst just days before Willingham’s execution.

Hurst’s report was not enough to earn Willingham a stay of execution from Gov. Rick Perry in 2004, or a posthumous pardon in 2014.

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