A former Texas prosecutor who may have sent an innocent man to his death is himself on trial for actions related to that earlier case. In addition to the issue of prosecutorial misconduct, the current case has raised questions about the reliability of forensic evidence and, especially, about the reliance on jailhouse “snitches” in obtaining convictions.
On trial is John Jackson, who served for more than three decades as a prosecutor in Navarro County. He later served as a judge until retiring from the bench in 2012. Initiated by the State Bar of Texas, the charges against him are related to the case involving Cameroon Todd Willingham, who had been convicted of murdering his three children after a trial prosecuted by Jackson. Convicted of the crime, Willingham was executed in 2004.
The criminal charges against Willingham were filed in connection with a fire in the defendant’s house in Corsicana, which occurred two days before Christmas in 1991. Although his wife was out holiday shopping, Willingham’s daughters died in the blaze. The subsequent case was based on the testimony of witnesses, who claimed that Willingham did not seem “sufficiently distraught” over the loss of his children, and to the findings of a fire investigator, who concluded in his investigation that the fire had been intentionally set. Also playing a role in the conviction was the testimony of Johnny Webb, a jailhouse “snitch” who claimed that Willingham had admitted to committing the crime while awaiting trial.
The physical evidence that Willingham had started the fire using lighter fluid has been discredited by scientists who believe that the original investigation was based on outdated techniques. Furthermore, Webb has refuted his earlier testimony about Willingham and now claims that he made false statements after being manipulated by Jackson. Evidence obtained more recently indicates that Webb, who himself had been charged with aggravated burglary, was given special treatment by Jackson in return for his testimony against Willingham. The actions taken by Jackson to help Webb included a request made directly to Rick Perry, then the governor of Texas. Jackson eventually had the original charge reduced to one that would allow Webb to go free.
The misconduct charge pertains to the failure of Jackson to alert Willingham’s attorneys about the arrangement made with Webb. This failure is considered a violation of legal ethics. Jackson denied the allegations at his own trial, which began late in April. Indirectly on trial are the issues of “snitched” testimony and what some regard as “junk” science in the prosecution of those charged with crimes. The trial of Jackson is only the latest in a number of suspected cases of misconduct by Texas prosecutors, although few have resulted in disciplinary action.