The State Bar of Texas has filed a formal accusation of prosecutorial misconduct against John H. Jackson, the former Navarro County Assistant District Attorney who prosecuted Cameron Todd Willingham. The prosecution led to Willingham’s conviction and subsequent execution in relation to the arson murder of his three young daughters in February 2004. The Bar had been investigating Jackson for months. He is accused of obstruction of justice, making false statements and concealing evidence favorable to Willingham’s defense. Pursuant to the disciplinary petition filed by the Texas Bar, Jackson has fifty days from the date of service of the petition to respond.
Willingham’s three daughters were killed by a fire at his home on December 23, 1991. At the time, Willingham was a 23-year-old unemployed auto mechanic in a troubled marriage and a reputation in the community for being a troublemaker, according to a report by The Marshall Project.
According to the Washington Post, Willingham steadfastly maintained his innocence until his execution, saying that he had awoken from a nap to find the house ablaze and filled with smoke, and had been unable to find his children before stumbling outside to get help. Texas fire examiners investigating the fire concluded that the blaze was an arson. During the 1992 trial, Jackson had claimed that it was “very likely” that Willingham had poured an accelerant on the floor of his house in the shape of a pentagram, a symbol used in Satanic worship.
A later review of the case by independent experts concluded that the investigation was “deeply flawed” and the fire may not have been arson, according to The Marshall Project.
The prosecution’s case rested heavily on the testimony of Johnny E. Webb, a jailhouse informant who claimed that Willingham had confessed to the murders while the two men were both being held at the Navarro County Jail in Corsicana. Webb has since recanted that testimony, and in a series of recent interviews with The Marshall Project, Webb said that Jackson “coerced” him to lie, threatening to pursue a life sentence if he did not cooperate. Webb was facing robbery charges, but had prior convictions that under Texas law could have led to a life sentence for this repeat offense.
Jackson had disputed that he threatened or coerced Webb, and when questioning Webb during the 1992 trial, directly asked Webb if he had been promised a reduced sentence or any other benefit for his testimony, and Webb had said that he had not.
However, in a response filed last September to the Texas Bar’s investigation, Jackson admitted that he had intervened on Webb’s behalf and Webb was given a reduced sentence. Jackson was required by law to disclose that Webb was being offered a deal in exchange for his testimony to the defense by both Texas law and long-standing Supreme Court precedent.
In the landmark 1963 case of Brady v. Maryland, the United States Supreme Court held that it was a violation of a criminal defendant’s due process rights under the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution for the prosecutor to withhold evidence that is favorable to the defendant “where the evidence is material either to guilt or to punishment.” This type of exculpatory evidence is often referred to as “Brady evidence.”
Texas has codified the principles set forth in Brady in Art. 2.01 of the Texas Code of Criminal Procedure, which states that a district attorney “shall not suppress facts or secrete witnesses capable of establishing the innocence of the accused.”
The Marshall Project describes Jackson’s failure to do so as a “revelation [that] might have been sufficient grounds for a new trial” for Willingham. Jackson is also accused of making false statement at a pre-trial hearing, when he told the court that he had no evidence favorable to Willingham.
The Innocence Project, an anti-death penalty legal advocacy group, has sought to have Willingham’s conviction overturned posthumously and filed a grievance against Jackson last summer, which formed the basis for the Bar’s petition.
Bryce Benjet, one of the Innocence Project staff attorneys, praised the Texas Bar for taking action against Jackson. “Withholding exculpatory evidence and the presentation of false testimony in a death penalty case is quite possibly the most serious ethical breach for a lawyer you can imagine,” said Benjet. “The bar is correct in seeking accountability where a prosecutor has clearly abused the public’s trust, and that misconduct resulted in the execution of an innocent man.”
The case against Jackson will be tried in the Navarro County Court, and Harris County District Court Judge David D. Farr has been appointed to the case. Joseph E. Byrne, Jackson’s attorney, has said that Jackson will request a jury trial, as the Bar’s rules allow. Jackson could potentially be disbarred if he is found to have committed the misconduct of which he is accused.
Jackson is not the only Texas prosecutor to face accusations of withholding Brady evidence. As Breitbart Texas reported, the Nueces County District Attorney’s Office has been accused of intentionally withholding favorable evidence in multiple cases. In one of the cases, a former Nueces County prosecutor filed suit against his former employer, alleging that the D.A. “routinely instructs” its employees to withhold exculpatory evidence from criminal defendants, and that he was wrongfully terminated for refusing to do so.
Follow Sarah Rumpf on Twitter @rumpfshaker.