Did Texas execute an innocent man?
By Maurice Possley, August 3, 2014
CORSICANA, Tex. — For more than 20 years, the prosecutor who convicted Cameron Todd Willingham of murdering his three young daughters has insisted that the authorities made no deals to secure the testimony of the jailhouse informer who told jurors that Willingham confessed the crime to him.
Since Willingham was executed in 2004, officials have continued to defend the account of the informer, Johnny E. Webb, even as a series of scientific experts have discredited the forensic evidence that Willingham might have deliberately set the house fire in which his toddlers were killed.
But now new evidence has revived questions about Willingham’s guilt: In taped interviews, Webb, who has previously both recanted and affirmed his testimony, gives his first detailed account of how he lied on the witness stand in return for efforts by the former prosecutor, John H. Jackson, to reduce Webb’s prison sentence for robbery and to arrange thousands of dollars in support from a wealthy Corsicana rancher. Newly uncovered letters and court files show that Jackson worked diligently to intercede for Webb after his testimony and to coordinate with the rancher, Charles S. Pearce Jr., to keep the mercurial informer in line.
“Mr. Pierce and I visit on a regular basis concerning your problems,” Jackson wrote to Webb in August 2000, eight years after the trial, when his former witness was threatening to recant. (Jackson misspelled the rancher’s last name.) “We worked for a long time on a number of different levels, including the Governor’s Office, to get you released early in the robbery case. ... Please understand that I am not indifferent or insensitive to your difficulties.”
Along with Webb’s account, the letters and documents expose a determined, years-long effort by the prosecutor to alter Webb’s conviction, speed his parole, get him clemency and move him from a tough state prison back to his hometown jail. Had such favorable treatment been revealed prior to his execution, Willingham might have had grounds to seek a new trial.
Opponents of the death penalty have long focused on questionable evidence used against Willingham, believing that his case could be the first to show conclusively that an innocent man was put to death in the modern era of capital punishment. As the Supreme Court upheld the death penalty in Kansas in 2006, Justice Antonin Scalia declared that the opposition could not cite “a single case — not one — in which it is clear that a person was executed for a crime he did not commit.”
In a grievance filed July 25 with the State Bar of Texas, the Innocence Project, a New York-based advocacy group that has investigated the Willingham case for a decade, argued that Jackson’s conduct “violated his professional, ethical and constitutional obligations.” The group called for a full investigation of Jackson’s handling of the case and argued that he could be sanctioned or even criminally prosecuted for falsifying official records, withholding evidence from the defense, suborning perjury and obstructing justice.
Jackson’s conduct, according to the complaint, “violated core principles of the legal profession, and did so with terrible consequences ... the execution of an innocent man.”
At the time Willingham was convicted in 1992, Jackson described the forensic evidence and Webb’s testimony as two main pillars of his case — either of which was enough to convict Willingham. More recently, Jackson contended in a local newspaper column that the trial presented “overwhelming evidence of guilt completely independent of the undeniably flawed forensic report.”
But the letters and court files show that Webb threatened to renounce his testimony against Willingham at least twice before. In 2000, he sent a formal motion to recant to the Navarro County District Attorney’s Office that was forwarded to Jackson, but never put in Willingham’s court file or shared with his lawyers.
Jackson — who was elected as a Navarro County judge in November 1996 and retired in 2012 — does not deny going out of his way to help Webb. But in a recent interview he said he did so only because he thought Webb was threatened by other inmates for cooperating with the prosecution. He has described allegations that he coaxed false testimony from Webb as a “complete fabrication.”
In response to a detailed list of questions about his dealings with Webb and Pearce, Jackson last week refused to comment further. Pearce died in 2008.
Webb’s latest allegations and the other new evidence in the matter could also have implications for the Texas governor, Rick Perry, a strong supporter of the death penalty and a possible Republican presidential candidate.
In 2004, Perry refused to temporarily stay Willingham’s execution despite the report of a leading forensic expert that sharply disputed the finding of arson by a Texas deputy fire marshal. Perry’s administration has also repeatedly undercut the authority of a state Forensic Science Commission, which agreed that the arson finding relied on flawed analysis. Defending his handling of the case in 2009, the governor declared that Willingham “was a monster.”
The Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles, the members of which were all appointed by Perry, voted in March to deny Willingham a posthumous full pardon.
Johnny Webb was a skinny, 22-year-old drug addict in January 1992 when he met Willingham in the Navarro County Jail, a yellow brick building that held about 125 prisoners on any given day. Willingham had just been arrested on murder charges for allegedly setting the fire that killed his three daughters — Amber, a 2-year-old, and twin 1-year-olds Karmon and Kameron.
On the morning of Dec. 23, 1991, Willingham’s wife, Stacy, went out to buy Christmas presents, leaving Willingham with the girls. Willingham later told investigators that Amber woke him up about an hour later, crying, “Daddy, Daddy.”
He said the house was filled with smoke and when he crawled out of his bedroom toward the three girls’ bedroom, he saw an orange glow on the ceiling. When he rose up to step over a childproof gate, his hair caught fire. He said he felt around for the girls but could not find them. When debris fell from the ceiling, he stumbled out the front door. He said he tried to go back in but could not because of the intense heat. He said he called for neighbors to call the Fire Department because, “My babies is in there and I can’t get them out.”
Firefighters and police arrived, but the fire had exploded when Willingham broke open a front window with a pool cue and the girls could not be rescued. All three died of smoke inhalation.
As Corsicana mourned the deaths, some residents of the small city 55 miles south of Dallas began to look suspiciously at Willingham. At the time, he was jobless and some neighbors said he physically abused Stacy.
Willingham, who liked heavy metal music and wore his hair in a thick black mullet, was seen laughing and drinking beer after the funeral for the girls and overheard complaining that his dart board was missing after the fire. At least one witness told authorities she told Willingham to try to rescue the girls, but instead he moved his car away from the blaze.
A deputy state fire marshal, Manuel R. Vasquez, viewed the ruins of the home along with Corsicana fire officials. Barely a week after the fire, they concluded it was arson. On Jan. 8, the night before Willingham’s 24th birthday, he was arrested by a SWAT team.
On Feb. 13, 1992, Willingham was indicted on charges of capital murder. The Navarro County district attorney, Patrick C. Batchelor, declared that if Willingham had cared as much about his children as he did about playing darts and drinking beer, he might have saved them.
Webb, who had a lengthy rap sheet, had just been jailed for robbing a woman at knifepoint. By his own admission, Webb was stealing to support his drug and alcohol habits and was still traumatized after being sexually assaulted by another inmate during a previous stay in jail.
In two taped interviews with the Innocence Project, conducted almost 22 years after his trial testimony, Webb described how the Navarro County sheriff, Leslie Cotten, pulled him out of his cell after he was seen talking briefly with Willingham. What had they talked about, Cotten wanted to know.
Cotten, approached recently at his home in Corsicana, said he did not remember Webb.
Webb said that Cotten and then Jackson urged him to try to talk to Willingham about the fire to see whether he might incriminate himself.
Repeatedly, Webb said, he was taken from the jail to Jackson’s office in the courthouse, where Jackson laid out photographs of the fire scene that included the bodies of the little girls.
“I was in his office three or four times and he laid them pictures out in front of me and said, ‘Johnny, what do you think about that?’ ” Webb recalled. “That could be your child. This dude is guilty.” Webb said the photos were “burned into my memory.”
Webb, who was facing a lengthy sentence, said he asked Jackson, “What’s going to be my deal?” and Jackson said, “If you help me, that robbery will disappear ... even if you’re convicted now, I can get it off of you later.”
It is not unusual for prosecutors to offer informants more lenient treatment, but they are obliged to present only testimony they believe to be true and to disclose any deals before trial so that witnesses can be confronted.
“He says, ‘Your story doesn’t have to match exactly’,” Webb continued. “He says, ‘I want you to just say he put fires in the corners. I need you to be able to say that so we can convict him, otherwise we’re going to have a murderer running our streets.’ ”
Webb told Jackson he hoped to turn his life around and become an underwater welder. That could be arranged, Jackson assured him, according to Webb. In the taped interviews, Webb recalled, “He says, ‘Look, we can get Chuck [Pearce] to help you with anything you need. He’s already there to help you.’ ”
“He [Jackson] had me believing 100 percent this dude was guilty — that’s why I testified,” Webb said. “The perks — they was willing to do anything to help me. No one has ever done that, so why wouldn’t I help them?”
In fact, Webb said, Willingham “never told me nothing.”
By 1992, Charles Pearce was one of Corsicana’s most respected citizens. His father, Charles, had been the first president of Colgate-Palmolive after the two companies merged in the 1920s. In the late 1940s, after a brief career in advertising, Pearce and his wife, Peggy, moved to Corsicana to oversee the Rush Creek Ranch, in nearby Kerens, Tex., a 3,500-acre spread that had been in Pearce’s mother’s family for generations.
After the death of his father in 1965, Pearce inherited millions and turned his attention to helping troubled young men and boys. He volunteered at a local orphanage and a state-run home for juvenile delinquents, and built a campground on the ranch where he took boys fishing.
Pearce also became fascinated with law enforcement, spending hours at the Navarro County Court House and befriending prosecutors, judges and other court officials. He researched and wrote a series of self-published books, some of them based loosely on criminal cases he watched unfold there.
The former manager of Pearce’s ranch, Joe Graves, recalled that when newly sentenced inmates were transported from the Navarro County Jail to the state prison in Huntsville, Pearce often went along, riding in the back of the van with the prisoners so he could hear their life stories.
The former Navarro County probation chief, Ted Warren, said he introduced Pearce to young men convicted of crimes so Pearce could help them find jobs or get into college.
Gary Motter was one of them. After Motter pleaded guilty in 1989 to being an accomplice in a shooting, Pearce stuck by him for 12 years, writing often, visiting him every month and buying him $1,000 in wood-working tools so he could learn a trade in prison. Motter said that when he was paroled, Pearce bought him new clothes and a pickup truck and paid his tuition at a computer school.
Laveta Calame, Pearce’s secretary during those years, said she was often sending letters and money to four or five different prison inmates on Pearce’s behalf. She added that Pearce was a good friend of District Attorney Batchelor and Jackson.
“He had his mind set on helping them,” she said. In a letter Pearce sent to Webb in 1995, he said he was financially backing Jackson’s campaign to be elected as a judge.
In an interview, Jackson denied he had a close relationship with Pearce. “I tried to keep him at arm’s length,” Jackson said. “I have always been suspicious of people who try to get involved in the criminal justice system who aren’t part of the system.”
Webb first met Pearce through two friends whom Pearce had tried to help after they were convicted of minor offenses. Webb said he spent time on Pearce’s ranch and at his home in Corsicana.
Webb said that after Jackson spoke to him about testifying against Willingham, Pearce visited him and said, “I’ll help you, and John Jackson is willing to do all these things if you’ll give this testimony.”
Webb pleaded guilty to a first-degree charge of aggravated robbery in March 1992 and was sentenced to 15 years in prison. Under Texas law, he was required to serve a minimum of three years and nine months before becoming eligible for parole.
Five months later, in August 1992, Webb was the first witness called by Jackson to testify for the prosecution at Willingham’s trial. Webb told the jury that sometime in April, Willingham, after repeatedly saying the fire was an accident, spontaneously confessed to him while they were speaking through a food slot in Willingham’s cell door.
Webb said Willingham told him that he squirted lighter fluid around the home and set it ablaze. Webb said Willingham and his wife, Stacy, decided to kill the girls to cover up Stacy’s physical abuse of one of the children. (Autopsies revealed no injuries to the girls other than those suffered in the fire.)
Webb admitted that he took anti-depressants for post-traumatic stress syndrome after being sexually assaulted in jail. He said that he decided to testify because his conscience was bothering him after Willingham confessed to him.
Jackson emphasized that Webb was testifying at great personal risk. “My life has been threatened as well as my family’s life,” Webb said on the stand. “And if I make it to the penitentiary, then I’m going to be in deep trouble.”
Jackson concluded Webb’s direct testimony by asking, “Johnny, have I ever promised you anything in return for your testimony in this case?”
“No, sir,” Webb replied. “You haven’t.”
“As a matter of fact, I told you there is nothing I can do for you,” Jackson said.
“You said there was nothing no one can do for me,” Webb said.
Willingham’s defense was less than robust. His lawyers called only one witness, a babysitter who said Willingham loved his girls. The trial lasted three days. On Aug. 20, 1992, the jury convicted Willingham of the murders of his children and the following day voted to sentence him to death.
Willingham, who had refused to plead guilty in return for a life sentence, maintained his innocence until the day he was executed by injection.
Two months after the Willingham trial, a typed, unsigned note to the Navarro County clerk — marked “per John Jackson” — instructed the clerk how to respond to the Texas Department of Corrections if prison officials inquired about Webb’s status. The note said that Webb had not been convicted of first-degree, aggravated robbery — as he had just testified in open court — but only of second-degree robbery. “If TDC calls and wants to know which one is correct — tell them ROBBERY with No Deadly Weapon Used.” The note also explained the change: “That is what John Jackson wants it to be.”
It was the first of many steps Jackson took on Webb’s behalf over the next several years, revealed in letters and documents, many of which have not previously been made public.
On Oct. 21, 1992, days after the note to the clerk, Jackson sent a letter to prison officials requesting that Webb be assigned to a medical unit, which would be less onerous than protective custody. “Mr. Webb was a pivotal witness in a capital murder prosecution,” Jackson wrote. Webb had “placed himself at risk based upon his testimony in the case and I fear that he may suffer reprisal if placed in the general population.”
He added, “Webb’s testimony may be necessary at (a) later stage of the proceedings and I would appreciate your attempting to place him in an environment that guarantees the smallest risk.”
A month later, Jackson followed up with another letter requesting that Webb be transferred back to the Navarro County Jail because Webb had received death threats from other inmates. “In the event of a reversal,” Jackson wrote, “I would also like to be able to count on Webb’s continued cooperation.”
Over the next three years, as Jackson kept in touch with Webb, Pearce deposited more than $2,000 into Webb’s prison commissary account, according to prison records obtained by the Innocence Project. In 1995, Webb wrote to Pearce that a guard at the Huntsville penitentiary had urged him to recant his Willingham testimony, possibly to protect himself against reprisals from other inmates. Pearce wrote back that he had immediately passed along Webb’s letter to Jackson.
Jackson then wrote to the Huntsville warden. “I hate to keep bothering you about Johnny Webb problems, however, I received a letter from him alleging that a correctional officer ... has suggested he recant his testimony,” he wrote. “Webb is not exactly a model citizen, but I would be very concerned if [prison] personnel is leaning on him in an attempt to change his story.”
Jackson’s campaign for Webb’s early release escalated in May 1996, after Webb reported that he continued to receive threats and demanded to be transferred to federal prison or the Navarro County Jail.
“Here the state offered me certain benefits in exchange for my testimony which resulted in sending a man to death row,” Webb wrote to Jackson. “Because I kept my end of the promise, the state is bound to uphold theirs until my release from incarceration.”
Pearce wrote to Webb three weeks later: “Tomorrow I will ... see John Jackson again. In addition to all else, he is trying to work some angles with the DA, the Sheriff and Judge. Believe me, a lot of people are trying to help you.”
Six weeks later, on July 15, 1996, at Jackson’s request, Judge Kenneth “Buck” Douglas — who had presided over Willingham’s trial and sentenced Webb to prison in 1992 — entered a new judgment in Webb’s case. The crime was officially recorded as a conviction for second-degree robbery instead of an aggravated robbery, in effect reducing the time Webb was required to wait before seeking parole.
Jackson then sent a letter to the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles saying that he had “recently” become aware through a letter from Webb that prison records mistakenly showed Webb was convicted of aggravated robbery.
Jackson now gave the parole board this account: After consulting with Webb’s attorney, he had obtained a court order changing the record to reflect that Webb was convicted on the lesser crime of second-degree robbery, with no weapon involved.
Finally, Jackson followed up with a letter to the head of the parole board saying Webb “volunteered information and testified ... without any agreement from the State respecting diminution of the recommendation in his own case.” He asked that Webb be given consideration for his “Cooperation in the murder prosecution without expectation of leniency.”
During this time, Pearce repeatedly informed Jackson about Webb’s status. “Mr. Pearce has kept me up to date on your various problems and has shared various correspondence with me regarding your eligibility for parole,” Jackson wrote to Webb in September 1996.
Despite the high-level attention, Webb grew impatient. He warned Pearce that he was thinking of contacting the news media because the prosecution had failed to help him after he provided critical testimony. Pearce advised against it.
“Assuming the media would listen to you, it would ... reopen and rehash the whole Willingham case,” Pearce wrote. “That would not gain you any friends and would, in fact, keep John from doing anything for you.”
In another letter, Pearce told Webb: “John says he has written you. I would point out to you that there are some things that can and some that cannot be discussed in a letter... I can assure you that there are people working in your behalf.”
Webb’s request for early release was denied. But Jackson did not relent, filing for clemency on Webb’s behalf. The application included letters from the robbery victim as well as from Batchelor agreeing that Webb had been punished enough.
Batchelor’s letter stressed that the prosecution wanted to ensure Webb’s cooperation as long as Willingham was still filing appeals. “Any threat to the public by the early release of Webb is far outweighed by the possibility that Willingham might be successful” in his appeals, Batchelor noted. (Batchelor declined to be interviewed.)
Shortly after Jackson’s election as a judge in 1996, he organized another flurry of letters to the parole board. This time, Judge Douglas, Sheriff Cotten and Jackson all insisted that Webb’s sentence was excessive and he should be released. Upon ascending to the bench, Jackson issued a warrant to prison officials requiring Webb be brought to Navarro County for a hearing relating to “protective custody pending executive clemency.” No court records have been found showing that such a hearing was held.
Webb’s clemency request was denied. After he was paroled in January 1998, Webb said in the Innocence Project interviews, he immediately went to see Pearce, who gave him a cashier’s check for $10,000. He used $7,250 of the money to buy a pickup truck, he said.
Pearce also agreed to pay Webb’s $10,000 tuition at The Ocean Corporation, a commercial diving and underwater welding school in Houston, Webb said. Pearce funneled $4,000 a month to Webb by wiring the money to the school and officials then issued him a check, he said.
Webb was dismissed from the diving school in June 1998, after he was jailed on a Houston drug charge. In his arrest records, Webb listed a $1,000 stipend from Pearce as his only source of income.
In August 1998, Webb pleaded guilty and was sentenced to two years in prison. At the same time, his parole on the robbery charge was revoked, which kept Webb in prison until 2007.
As soon as Webb returned to prison, Pearce resumed sending money to Webb’s commissary account with a $200 deposit in the fall of 1998 and $400 in 1999, according to the prison records.
In February 2000, Webb wrote to Pearce saying he was scared because other inmates had learned he had testified against Willingham. He said it was “all over the unit” that he was a snitch. Webb said he had no choice but to recant his testimony.
In March 2000, Webb submitted a hand-written document titled “Motion to Recant Testimony” to the Navarro County District Attorney’s Office. Webb said he was “made to Lie” and that Willingham “is innocent of all charges.” A handwritten note on the document says “Gave to Dist. Judge Jackson 4-3-00,” but the motion was neither included in Willingham’s court file nor disclosed to Willingham’s attorneys. Webb eventually dropped the matter.
That August, Jackson wrote to Webb again. He said that he and Pearce “visit on a regular basis concerning your problems.” Jackson reminded Webb that he had “worked for a long time on a number of different levels, including the Governor’s Office to get you released early” and that he had been disappointed that Webb wound up back in prison again so quickly.
In January 2004, weeks before Willingham’s scheduled execution, his attorney filed for a reprieve. He sought 90 days to investigate an allegation that Webb had received a vehicle after he was released from prison in 1998 and indications that Webb’s testimony had been coached.
Judge Jackson opposed the stay and flatly denied once again that Webb had received any benefits in exchange for his testimony. “I did not offer Webb any consideration for his cooperation,” Jackson declared. Having previously insisted that Webb’s punishment was excessive, Jackson now described it as “entirely adequate.”
As for the car, Jackson said, “Any benefit Webb may have obtained from Pearce at a time remote from the Willingham prosecution had no connection with Webb’s testimony.”
Webb was paroled again in 2007. He returned to Corsicana, got married and tried to lead a quiet life. He could no longer count on Pearce’s help.
“He used my father horribly,” Pearce’s daughter, Vivian, said in an interview. “He would show up at the house asking for money. I finally said this has to stop. He’s taking advantage of you.”
Vivian Pearce said her father was a good friend of John Jackson and helped people at his request. But she rejected the idea that her father’s generosity toward Webb might have been connected with his testimony against Willingham. “I just knew him as one of Dad’s projects,” she said. “My father would never have done anything to encourage false testimony.”
The mounting evidence of Willingham’s innocence does not seem to have persuaded many residents of Corsicana. “I wish they could dig Willingham up and kill him two more times — once for each of those little girls,” said Tony Ayala, a construction worker who lives down the street from the scene of the fire. Even Willingham’s widow, Stacy, who had defended him for years, later said she believed he was guilty.
Six years after Willingham’s execution, the Innocence Project obtained a hearing to determine whether a special Court of Inquiry should be convened to investigate whether Willingham was wrongly executed. Jackson prepared an affidavit for that proceeding in which he again denied that Webb received any benefits in exchange for his testimony. A Texas appeals court prevented the judge from issuing a ruling.
In 2012, the Innocence Project and Willingham’s family members filed a petition with the parole board seeking a posthumous pardon. By that time, several of the country’s top experts in fire forensics had debunked the indicators of arson and concluded the fire was an accident of unknown cause. (Evidence that might have identified the actual cause was lost long ago.)
In April 2014, the parole board declined to grant the pardon.
These days, Webb lives with his wife and mother, subsists on odd jobs and is again struggling to stay out of prison. He was arrested in August 2013 by Corsicana police on a charge of assaulting a man who came onto his front porch in a dispute over money. Webb said that he acted in self-defense.
During hours of conversation at his home here, Webb said he was eager to finally set the record straight about his testimony against Willingham, but his lawyer was adamant that Webb not say more publicly while he still faces criminal charges in Navarro County. The attorney, Daniel Biltz, said Webb has nothing to gain by publicly discrediting the Willingham prosecution before his current case is resolved.
In his interviews earlier this year with the Innocence Project, Webb said: “I’ve been wanting to come forward with this ... for a long, long time about certain specific things that no one’s ever known. This has been something that’s pretty much destroyed my life for 22 years.”