In December 1991 a fire at the Corsicana, Texas residence of Cameron Todd Willingham claimed the lives of Willingham’s three children. Navarro County law enforcement and arson investigators quickly put Willingham in their sights as the prime suspect. In January 1992 a grand jury indicted the father for the capital murder of his three children. After turning down a proffered life sentence deal, Willingham was tried, convicted, and sentenced to death seven months later. His death penalty conviction rested on two pieces of evidence: forensic evidence from local fire marshals that the fire had been deliberately set and testimony from a jailhouse snitch who claimed Willingham confessed to him.
The fire forensic evidence was seriously repudiated by a nationally renowned fire forensic expert just weeks prior to Willingham’s February 2004 execution. This new evidence was not seriously considered in the final days and hours of Willingham’s execution watch. Governor Rick Perry refused to issue a stay of execution, saying the “supposed experts (using finger quotes) were wrong and not to listen to anti-death penalty propaganda.”
Willingham went to his death in the state’s death chambers in Huntsville bitterly proclaiming his innocence.
In the years since Willingham’s execution, there have been a series of forensic investigations by prominent arson experts, all of whom endorsed the theory that Willingham had been convicted and executed based on faulty fire forensic evidence; that, in fact, it would have been virtually impossible for him to have deliberately set the fire that killed his three children as the State had alleged.
Despite this compelling evidence of actual innocence, state law enforcement, arson investigators, politicians and the children’s mother vehemently maintain that Willingham was actually guilty and deserved to be executed.
But Willingham’s supporters are just as convinced that he was actually innocent of the triple murder. On February 28, 2014, the New York Times carried a report by John Schwartz chronicling the latest efforts of Willingham’s supporters to secure a posthumous exoneration. The effort is being led by the New York-based Innocence Project and Willingham’s family. The effort is buttressed by evidence discovered by Innocence Project lawyers that jailhouse snitch Johnny Webb testified against Willingham in exchange for a reduced charge and ultimate sentence.
Jailhouse snitches are notoriously unreliable. They will dance on the graves of their mother for a “get out of jail free” ticket. Johnny Webb was no different. He was not a model citizen in jail. He was a repeat offender who saw an opportunity to get out of jail early by either providing prosecutors with information they needed or testifying strictly as instructed by prosecutors.
Either way, it was highly suspect, dirty business which probably sent an innocent man to his death at the hands of an execution-happy state.
The “snitch” business was made even dirtier by the fact that the district attorney who prosecuted Willingham went on to become a criminal district court judge before retiring. The Times reported that an attorney who has worked hard to exonerate Willingham’s name, Walter M. Reeves, Jr., said the “biggest open question” in the case has always been whether D.A. Johnny Jackson, now retired judge, made a deal with Webb after insisting for years there had been “no deal.”
The “no deal” protestation has now been seriously called into question by a “curt handwritten note” found in the files of Webb in the Navarro County district attorney’s office. Current District Attorney R. Lowell Thompson, a longtime supporter of Willingham’s guilt, opened the files to Innocence Project lawyers.
The note was found in a box of photographs by attorney Bryce Benjet last November. The note said the Webb’s first degree robbery charge would be reduced to second degree robbery based “on coop in Willingham.”
There it is, out in the open. A deal was made between Webb and the prosecution. It now appears testimony was procured against Willingham in exchange for a reduced charge for Webb, something that was not disclosed to the defense. Innocence Project executive director Barry Scheck called the note a “smoking pistol” in the case and attorney Benjet could not contain his excitement, saying “this is what we have been looking for.”
Eugenia Willingham, Todd’s stepmother, told the Times: “I’m real thrilled that all this has come to light. We’ll see what happens. I can’t help but be hopeful.”
Whether this “smoking pistol” will be enough to convince the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles and Gov. Rick Perry to posthumously exonerate Willingham remains to be seen—but given the governor’s prior statements in the Willingham case, there is little reason to “be hopeful.” But even if an exoneration does not come out of this latest effort, the world will finally know in fairly certain terms that the State of Texas executed an innocent man when it put Cameron Todd Willingham to death by lethal injection a decade ago.