From The Washington Post and the Marshall Project: Fresh doubts over a Texas Execution

Johnny Webb last month in Corsicana, Tex. Webb says he was coaxed into testifying that Cameron Todd Willingham confessed to killing his three daughters in 1991 by arson. (Michel du Cille/The Washington Post)

Johnny Webb last month in Corsicana, Tex. Webb says he was coaxed into testifying that Cameron Todd Willingham confessed to killing his three daughters in 1991 by arson. (Michel du Cille/The Washington Post)

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.

CONTINUE READING at WashingtonPost.com HERE

READ “The Prosecutor and the Snitch” at The Marshall Project HERE.

The National Registry of Exonerations Is Up

A few of the 891 exonerees included in the new Registry.

After several years of painstaking work, the National Registry of Exonerations is a reality.

A joint project of the University of Michigan Law School and Northwestern University Law School’s Center on Wrongful Convictions, the Registry is the largest collection of exonerations in the United States with nearly 900 individual cases since 1989, the year of the first DNA exoneration in America.

The Registry issued a report analyzing these cases as well as the exonerations of more than 1,100 defendants following convictions stemming from 13 separate police corruption scandals (such as the drug task force scandal in Tulia, Texas, and the Rampart scandal in Los Angeles).

The Registry is the brainchild of Michigan Law professor Samuel Gross and Rob Warden, executive director of the Center on Wrongful Convictions.

In December 2011, I began to work on the Registry, researching and writing cases.

The total number of defendants exonerated during the 23-year period totals roughly 2,000an average of about one a week.

The cases in the Registry offer important insights into the false conviction phenomenon — insights that hopefully will foster criminal justice reforms designed to improve the accuracy and fairness of the criminal justice system.

To contact the Registry, click HERE.

And here’s some what USA Today has to say about the Registry Sunday evening (even if they jumped the embargo a little):

Perjury, faulty eyewitness identification and prosecutorial misconduct are the leading reasons for wrongful convictions, according to the first national registry of exonerations compiled by university researchers.

The database, assembled in a collaboration by the University of Michigan and Northwestern University, has identified 873 faulty convictions in the past 23 years that have been recognized by prosecutors, judges or governors.

The registry’s founders say the numbers, which do not include many cases in which innocent suspects plead guilty to avoid the risk of more serious punishments or cases that have been dismissed because of legal error without new evidence of innocence, represent only a fraction of the problem in the nation’s criminal justice system.

“What this shows is that the criminal justice system makes mistakes, and they are more common than people think,” said University of Michigan law professor Samuel Gross, the registry’s editor. “It is not the rule, but we won’t learn to get better unless we pay attention to these cases.”

Despite the data, the registry concluded that the “overwhelming majority of convicted defendants are guilty.”

“Most never dispute their guilt and few ever present substantial post-conviction evidence of innocence,” the registry found. “When that does happen, however, it should be taken seriously. …We cannot prevent all false convictions, but we must not compound these tragedies by stubbornness or arrogance or, worst of all, indifference.”

Read USAToday’s complete coverage HERE.

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