Two weeks ago the Houston Chronicle broke the news that Texas lawyers, along with the New York-based Innocence Project, filed a bar complaint against former Navarro County prosecutor John Jackson for his role in the now-infamous death penalty case of Cameron Todd Willingham.
Willingham’s case was given national exposure by David Grann in a 2009 piece for The New Yorker, which examined claims that Willingham was wrongly executed by the State of Texas for the deaths of his children in a 1991 house-fire.
The grievance against Jackson, the lead prosecutor at Willingham’s trial, was filed on July 25, 2014 on behalf of two of Willingham’s family members. [Read the bar complaint here.] It alleges that a “pillar” of Jackson’s case against Willingham was disingenuously built on the incentivized testimony of a jailhouse informant.
Jackson, who later became a state district judge, allegedly covered up a deal he struck with a key witness in the case, Johnny Webb. Jackson allegedly told Webb he would reduce the charges in a pending robbery case against Webb in exchange for his testimony in the Willingham case. Webb testified at trial that while he and Willingham were housed in the same jail, Willingham confessed to setting the fire that killed his children. Jackson used this confession to prop up the arson evidence in the case (which has since been widely discredited by experts in forensic science. Read submissions from experts to the Texas Forensic Science Commission here.)
Failing to disclose a deal with a witness in a criminal case has long been held to be a violation of a defendant’s right to due process. In Giglio v. United States (1972) the Supreme Court ruled that the state is obligated to disclose to the defense any promise or expectation of leniency it offered to a witness. In Napue v. Illinois (1959) the Court made clear that a prosecutor’s failure to correct the testimony of a witness who falsely testifies that they have no expectation of leniency from the state is also a violation of due process.
But the allegations in the bar complaint against Jackson go much further than even these serious violations: the complainants suggest that Jackson has actively covered up the deal he made with Webb “to this day”, going so far as to “deceive” the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles and the Governor, and submitting false evidence in the form of an affidavit to a 2010 Court of Inquiry.
Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter Maurice Possley has written a feature article on the allegations against Jackson, published today as The Marshall Project’s inaugural piece and reprinted in The Washington Post and the Dallas Morning News. Possley reveals that Webb now says Willingham never confessed to being responsible for his children’s deaths.
In addition, the ABA Journal reports on the recently filed grievance here.
As for next steps in the bar complaint process, the Houston Chronicle says:
“The State Bar of Texas will determine if “just cause” exists to pursue further action. If just cause is found, a state district judge or a legal association administrative judge will hear the case. If the complaint is upheld, Jackson could face sanctions up to losing his license to practice law.”
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