Prosecutor in contested Texas execution faces new scrutiny by Innocence Project



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DALLAS — A nonprofit group on Monday accused the prosecutor in the case of a Texas man executed for the fire deaths of his three daughters of trying to cover up a jailhouse informant's recantation.

The New York-based Innocence Project, which investigates potential wrongful convictions, said it had filed a state bar grievance against John H. Jackson, a former prosecutor and judge who oversaw the case against Cameron Todd Willingham.

Willingham was executed in 2004 for killing his three daughters in a house fire in Corsicana. The project has long pursued Willingham's case for evidence suggesting that Texas wrongfully executed him. State officials have maintained that they still believe he was guilty of murder.

A key witness in the case was inmate Johnny Webb, who testified that while in jail awaiting trial, Willingham confessed to Webb that he had killed the girls.

In its latest grievance filing, dated July 25, the Innocence Project reiterated allegations that Jackson lied about getting Webb a lighter sentence on a robbery case. It also accuses Jackson and a local wealthy rancher in Corsicana of working to conceal Webb's change of heart, which occurred years before Willingham's execution.

The Innocence Project accused Jackson of hiding a handwritten letter written by Webb in 2000 that was titled "Motion to Recant Testimony." Attorneys on the case have said they found the letter years after Willingham's death.

"I was (forced) to testify against Mr. Willingham by the D.A.'s office and other officials," Webb wrote in the note, posted online by The Marshall Project, a nonprofit journalism group that examined the case and published an account of its findings Monday.

"I was made to lie," Webb said in the note. "Mr. Willingham is innocent of all charges."

Jackson did not return several messages from The Associated Press on Monday. He has consistently denied any wrongdoing in the case. He has acknowledged working to get Webb out of prison early for his robbery conviction, but said he did so because Webb was receiving death threats from the Aryan Brotherhood due to his testimony.

Webb told the Marshall Project that rancher Charles S. Pearce paid for his entry into a diving school after his release and sent him money for years afterward. The Innocence Project accused Pearce of being Jackson's "wealthy friend" and communicating with him often about Webb.

Pearce died in 2008, and his daughter, Vivian, told the Marshall Project that she didn't believe her father would have abetted false testimony.

The State Bar of Texas would not comment Monday on the grievance filing. The bar typically takes about 30 days to review petitions and decide whether to proceed against a lawyer. If the state bar moves forward, Jackson could lose his law license.

A house fire in 1991 killed Willingham's daughters: 2-year-old Amber and 1-year-old twins Karmon and Kameron. Fire investigators testifying against Willingham said they concluded the fire was set intentionally.

But several fire science experts and a state panel have since said that conclusion was wrong and unsupported by evidence. Combined with Webb's recantation, supporters of Willingham have called his execution a wrongful death and have pushed on state officials to acknowledge his innocence.

Republican Gov. Rick Perry, who previously called Willingham a "monster" guilty of killing the three girls, has reaffirmed his position, and the Texas parole board earlier this year denied a request to pardon him posthumously.

State advocates, meanwhile, are working with the Texas Fire Marshal's Office to review old arson cases and have won several reforms designed to avoid wrongful convictions.


Follow Nomaan Merchant on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/nomaanmerchant.

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