A prosecutor who handled the case of a Texas man executed for the fire deaths of his three daughters has been formally accused of misconduct over allegations that he concealed evidence during the 1992 murder trial.
The State Bar of Texas has asked a Navarro County court to discipline John H. Jackson following questions raised by the New York-based Innocence Project and Cameron Todd Willingham’s relatives, which investigates potential wrongful convictions. A spokeswoman for the bar said the punishments for Jackson could range from a reprimand to revoking his law license.
Jackson was the lead prosecutor against Willingham, whose case has become a flashpoint for death penalty opponents who contend that he was wrongly executed. Jackson, who has consistently denied any wrongdoing, declined to comment on the state bar’s action. His attorney disputed the accusations.
Willingham maintained his innocence up until being executed in 2004.
“Before, during, and after the 1992 trial, (Jackson) knew of the existence of evidence that tended to negate the guilt of Willingham and failed to disclose that evidence to defense counsel,” the bar’s four-page complaint says.
The complaint was filed March 5 without any public announcement or fanfare. It was first reported by The Marshall Project, a nonprofit journalism group.
The case has been referred to a family court judge in Houston. Joseph E. Byrne, Jackson’s attorney, said he has requested a jury trial.
“We’re very confident that when a jury sees this evidence, they will find that John Jackson has not done anything wrong,” Byrne said.
A key witness in the case against Willingham was inmate Johnny Webb, who testified that while in jail awaiting trial, Willingham confessed to Webb that he had killed the girls. Webb later recanted that testimony before Willingham was executed.
Jackson has acknowledged working to get Webb out of prison early for his robbery conviction, but said he did so because Webb was receiving death threats from the Aryan Brotherhood due to his testimony.
“I think that the evidence leaves no doubt there that there was a pretrial deal with this informant, Johnny Webb,” Bryce Benjet, a staff with attorney with the Innocence Project, said Wednesday evening.
A house fire in 1991 killed Willingham’s daughters: 2-year-old Amber and 1-year-old twins Karmon and Kameron. Fire investigators testifying against Willingham concluded the fire was set intentionally.
But several fire science experts and a state panel have since said that conclusion was wrong and unsupported by evidence. Combined with Webb’s recantation, supporters of Willingham have called his execution a wrongful death and have pushed for the state to acknowledge his innocence.
In 2013, another former Texas prosecutor was disbarred after being charged over a wrongful murder conviction that sent an innocent man to prison for nearly 25 years. Ken Anderson had also been accused of misconduct by the state bar and pleaded no contest to a charge of contempt of court. He agreed to a 10-day jail sentence.
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