The courthouse in Corsicana, Texas, roughly 60 miles southeast of Dallas, has been meticulously restored to its original 1905 glory, a time when the county was awash in oil money. Its main courtroom has soaring, two-story pink walls and gold-flecked architectural details that frame the judge’s bench, witness stand, and jury box. For more than three decades, John Jackson worked this room (though during those years it was a far more utilitarian space), first as a prosecutor with the Navarro County district attorney’s office and later as an elected judge, until his retirement in 2012.
Last week he returned, this time as a defendant, facing charges brought by the State Bar of Texas, whose lawyers argue that Jackson violated basic legal ethics in connection with his conduct in prosecuting the county’s most notorious case, the death penalty trial of Cameron Todd Willingham, who was convicted and ultimately executed for what the state insists was the December 1991 arson-murder of his three young children in the home they shared just over a mile away.
Specifically, the state’s lawyers contend that Jackson made a deal with a jailhouse snitch who agreed to testify against Willingham and then hid that deal from Willingham’s defense attorneys — a clear violation of both law and ethics. They say that Jackson took extraordinary measures over the next two decades to conceal his deceitful actions.
“It is a duty of the prosecution — an ethical obligation — to turn over that evidence,” state bar lawyer Kristin Brady told jurors in her opening arguments last Wednesday afternoon. “For years he protected this snitch; for years. It wasn’t for [the snitch’s] protection, it was for his own protection.”
The prosecution of Willingham has been widely reported and litigated, in part because his conviction was secured on twin pillars of evidence known to wreak havoc in the criminal justice system: junk science and incentivized snitch testimony.
Where the junk science is concerned, there is now little question that the fire that killed Willingham’s children was not arson — caused, as the state claimed, by Willingham spreading lighter fluid around his house and setting it ablaze. Leading fire scientists have weighed in to say that the evidence the Corsicana Fire Department and Texas fire marshal investigator relied upon in fingering Willingham as the cause of the deadly blaze was based on outdated, discredited fire-science folklore.
It is the second basis of the prosecution, however, that underlies Jackson’s current civil disciplinary trial.
In short, lead prosecutor Jackson called a man named Johnny Webb to testify at Willingham’s 1992 trial to say that while he was locked up in the county jail on an aggravated robbery charge, his fellow inmate, Willingham, randomly, and in detail, confessed to Webb his alleged crime. Under questioning by Jackson, Webb asserted that he did not expect any benefit in exchange for his incriminating testimony.
In the years since Willingham’s 2004 execution, significant evidence has come to light indicating that was untrue. Records amassed by the bar association and the Innocence Project — including lengthy correspondence between Jackson and Webb spanning roughly a decade — strongly suggest not only that it was at least implied to Webb that he would receive a reduced sentence for his testimony, but also that Jackson went to great lengths to make that happen. Moreover, Webb now insists that his trial testimony was false and compelled by Jackson.
On the witness stand on April 27, Jackson vehemently denied the allegations.
Lawyers for the bar’s Office of the Chief Disciplinary Counsel have tried to make clear that they are not here to re-litigate the question of Willingham’s guilt or innocence, which they say is irrelevant. The sole issue at hand, they argue, is whether Jackson’s actions as they relate to his dealings with Webb violated legal ethics — so far to seemingly thin effect.
Indeed, where the bar attorneys have toed that straight-line, Joseph Byrne, Jackson’s attorney, has done his best to conflate the issue of Willingham’s guilt with Jackson’s innocence: The bar, he has suggested, is motivated only by an interest in tarring Jackson in order to demonstrate that his client — and the state of Texas — hastened the execution of an innocent man.
It was roughly 10:30 a.m. on December 23, 1991, when the fire broke out in the five-room wood frame house on West 11th Ave. in Corsicana that Willingham shared with his wife, Stacy, and their three young daughters. The bodies of Willingham’s twin 1-year-old girls were found amid the charred remains of the house. They had perished in the fire. First responders later carried out the 2-year-old, who was still alive. She died at the hospital shortly thereafter, of smoke inhalation.
According to the local newspaper, Willingham was distraught at the scene. Sitting on the back of a fire truck, he was sobbing and screaming, “I want to see my babies!” He was taken to the hospital as well, where he was treated for first- and second-degree burns on his face, back, and hands, according to the Corsicana Daily Sun. At the time of the fire, Stacy was picking out Christmas presents for the kids at the local Salvation Army.
The heartbreaking tragedy brought a groundswell of local support. Firefighters and cops pledged to help the family make it through the holiday season. But the goodwill quickly disappeared. On January 8, 1992, Willingham was arrested, booked into jail, and charged with three counts of murder.
In the 16 days between the fire and Willingham’s arrest, things had changed significantly, primarily because of the assessment of the fire marshal investigator, Manuel Vasquez. According to Vasquez, there were telltale signs — among them, burn marks on the floor and so-called crazed glass — telling him this was no innocent blaze.
Meanwhile, witnesses at the scene — and people who observed Willingham in the days just after the fire — concluded that he wasn’t appropriately distraught and was seemingly unconcerned about what had happened. The elected district attorney announced that his office would seek death for the 23-year-old father.
After a two-day trial led by Jackson that summer, Willingham was found guilty and sent to death row. He was executed in February 2004, despite serious questions about the validity of the fire science that sent him there. In the intervening years, a number of experts reviewed the case, concluding that there was no evidence of arson. Instead, experts suggest the fire was more likely caused by a space heater or faulty wiring. In the absence of evidence of arson, the integrity of Willingham’s conviction rested squarely on the shoulders of a jailhouse snitch.
In the spring of 1992, Johnny Webb had just pleaded guilty to a charge of aggravated robbery; according to the plea, Webb had tried to rob a woman of her purse at knifepoint.
While he was awaiting transfer to prison, Webb met Willingham, who had been arrested and charged with murder roughly two months before. Webb was a jail trusty at the time, meaning he was allowed more freedom than a typical inmate and was tasked with daily chores — in this case, keeping the floors in the common area of the cellblock clean. That put him in daily contact with any number of inmates, including Willingham.
According to Webb’s account at Willingham’s trial, for the first month that Webb was around him, Willingham didn’t say much — only that he was having a difficult time sleeping and that he did not kill his children. One day that changed: Out of nowhere, Webb said Willingham confessed that he had set the fire in order to kill the kids — or, rather, to ensure that the authorities wouldn’t find out that one of them had been grievously injured, presumably by his wife Stacy, earlier that morning. Webb said that Willingham came home to find one of the children injured and set the fire to cover the abuse.
There was immediate reason to be suspicious of Webb’s account: None of the children showed any signs of abuse and Stacy wasn’t even at home when the fire broke out. There was but one detail in Webb’s story that dovetailed with the state’s theory of the case, the notion that Willingham had used an accelerant to start the blaze.
Under Jackson’s questioning, Webb testified that he was not coaxed by anyone to provide this story about Willingham nor promised anything in return for his testimony in the case. “As a matter of fact, I told you there is nothing I can do for you,” Jackson followed up.
“You said there was nothing that no one can do for me,” Webb affirmed.
Sitting nervously on a wooden bench outside the courtroom on the opening day of Jackson’s trial was Webb, a slight 47-year-old man with piercing eyes and a thinning wash of light-colored hair. Decades of drug use and repeated incarceration have done little to curb his youthful appearance. Still, he looked wary, repeatedly working his hands together as if at any moment he might need to flee.
As it turns out, Houston District Judge David Farr, the visiting judge tasked with overseeing Jackson’s trial, had ordered Webb to check in with him at the courthouse every morning at 8:30 until he was called as a witness. The purpose, Farr noted to the lawyers before the trial started, was to ensure that if Webb did get a hankering to flee before testifying, he wouldn’t be more than 24 hours ahead of the law that would find him and bring him back.
Certainly, there are plenty of reasons for Webb to be nervous, not least of which is that he has told many stories over the years — and not only about what Willingham supposedly told him back in 1992.
On that point alone, Webb first said that Willingham confessed; then, shortly after allegedly relating that story to Jackson but before testifying at Willingham’s trial, he supposedly called the FBI from the jail to say that he was going to be forced by the state to testify about something — Willingham’s confession — that never happened. When the FBI showed up, Webb allegedly turned them away, saying he’d never made the call in question. He then testified at the August 1992 trial and said he was given no deal in exchange for doing so.
Once shipped off to prison, Webb engaged in extensive correspondence with Jackson, imploring the prosecutor — who took the bench as the county’s district judge in January 1997 — to do something to ease his time in prison. Beginning in October 1992 — less than two months after Willingham was convicted and just after Webb testified a second time, at a hearing where Willingham unsuccessfully sought a new trial — Jackson did just that, according to attorneys for the state bar.
Jackson wrote numerous letters — to prison officials, to the Board of Pardons and Paroles, and even to Gov. Rick Perry — where he lauded Webb’s role in the Willingham case. He told prison officials that Webb was a “pivotal” witness. In court last week, Jackson testified that he didn’t really think Webb was all that important but said otherwise in the hope that it would get favorable attention from authorities.
Eventually, Jackson tried to get Webb out of prison by retroactively changing his aggravated robbery charge to a charge of simple robbery, which would reduce Webb’s 15-year sentence and make him immediately eligible for parole. He was ultimately successful, availing himself of a legal process reserved for correcting purely clerical issues arising from a legal judgment.
According to Jackson, there was a legitimate issue in his mind about what charge Webb had actually pleaded guilty to back in 1992, and he was simply trying to resolve the discrepancy. Reducing Webb’s charge would be a matter of “justice,” Jackson intimated during testimony last week.
The problem, however, is that there’s no doubt Webb was charged with and pleaded guilty to aggravated robbery — something Jackson should know since he not only represented the state at Webb’s plea hearing back in 1992, but also questioned Webb about his conviction during Willingham’s trial — making his use of this particular process highly improper, according to the bar.
Ultimately, Jackson testified that he was trying to assist Webb and was “hoping I’d be able to find a way” to do it. But it wasn’t because he had any deal with Webb, he insisted, though he did say that “I guess it’s possible” that he had told Webb he would try to reduce his charge.
Jackson said his true motivation for helping Webb was to ensure his safety in prison. As a snitch, he would be a potential target of violence, and Jackson felt he was obligated to protect his witness. Letters from Webb described being abused by members of the Aryan Brotherhood prison gang, which particularly despised snitches and allegedly had ties to Willingham’s half-brother, who was serving a life sentence for murder. “It was a special case and I tried to do everything I could to prevent violence against Johnny Webb,” Jackson testified.
Importantly, though, Jackson never alerted Willingham’s attorneys to any of the actions he took over the years to aid the snitch.
By 8 a.m. on April 26, the day Jackson’s trial commenced, the Corsicana courthouse was crawling with security — including cops in army green flak jackets patrolling the exterior and interior of the building. One deputy said the extra show of force was deemed necessary simply because of the high-profile nature of the case. Others have intimated it was because of possible threats, presumably to Jackson and/or Webb, by members of the Aryan Brotherhood, allegedly hostile to the state’s case against Willingham.
The county’s law enforcement machine was ready for any eventuality — and regardless of whether the threats were legitimate, it made for a significant show of force for the jurors required to march in and out of the courtroom past the armed officers.
Byrne, Jackson’s attorney, played the security to good effect. In asking Jackson about other actions he took to help Webb — notably, issuing two bench warrants to bring Webb back to the county jail to serve out part of his sentence — he gestured to the deputies in the courtroom. Of course Jackson would want to bring the vulnerable Webb back to the county where he would be guarded by sheriff’s employees, people Jackson trusted, who worked every day to keep residents of the county safe — including, he noted, the jurors currently sitting in judgment. Jackson, now 66, who has slightly stooped shoulders, a lispy Texas drawl, and a face that rests in a half-smile, nodded knowingly.
Much of Byrne’s trial strategy seemed to be based in this kind of tribalism: Jackson worked to keep the county safe from child murderers such as Willingham and bent over backward to help a troubled young man, Johnny Webb, who helped to put a monster in prison. Why would such a man do anything unethical or illegal to make that happen?
Byrne spent much of his opening argument focused on the years of litigation in the Willingham case — at one point even suggesting that current fire science is actually unreliable, bought and paid for by out-of-state forces like the Innocence Project (which filed the initial ethics complaint with the bar in 2014 on behalf of Willingham’s relatives), whereas the investigation that fingered Willingham for murder was solid. The message was clear: Outside forces are using the state bar and its trumped-up ethics charge to try to bring down a good man.
Indeed, Byrne has worked hard to get Judge Farr to allow into evidence as much of the grisly detail of the children’s deaths and negative evidence regarding Willingham’s character as possible, much to the consternation of bar lawyer Kristin Brady, who was clearly exasperated by Byrne’s histrionics. Almost all of the trial’s third day was spent with the lawyers arguing this issue outside the presence of the jury, whose 15 members spent the day cooling their heels.
The details are necessary to show how strong a case Jackson had against Willingham, Byrne argued — so strong that he didn’t even need to call Webb as a witness, let alone make and then conceal a deal with him. But the case details aren’t “relevant to anything,” Brady argued, “because [Jackson] still used Webb.” The grim details would serve only to prejudice the jury.
Byrne later retorted, “I hope it’s prejudicial.”
But Byrne’s approach obfuscates one of the core missions of the Texas State Bar: to police its members, enforcing basic ethical principles that are key to safeguarding the public from deceitful attorneys.
Since 2011, the bar has sought sanctions — which range from public reprimand all the way up to disbarment — against more than 2,000 attorneys. Since 2013, it has had roughly 10 cases against prosecutors that ended in sanctions — including two notable examples.
In 2015, former District Attorney Charles Sebesta was disbarred for withholding evidence from attorneys working to defend a man named Anthony Graves, who spent 18 years in prison, 12 of them on death row, before finally being exonerated. (Graves was friends with Willingham during the years that both of them were on the row.) And in 2013, a former DA and elected judge, Ken Anderson, was forced to give up his law license after he agreed to plead guilty to prosecutorial misconduct for his role in the wrongful conviction of Michael Morton. (Anderson was also sentenced to 10 days in jail.) Morton spent 25 years in prison for the murder of his wife before DNA evidence linked her killing to another man. Anderson, like Sebesta, also hid exculpatory evidence from Morton’s attorneys — the action Jackson now stands accused of in the Willingham case.
That Jackson’s trial is happening in public, his fate in the hands of a common jury, is something of an anomaly. Lawyers charged with ethical infractions are given a choice of how they want to proceed. They can have their case heard in District Court, as Jackson has opted, or considered in private by a panel made up largely of other attorneys. Since 2013, just three prosecutors have chosen the public option.
There is clearly a calculus involved in the decision. “Getting in front of a panel is quicker, but if you feel like you’re not going to do well there, you take it to trial court,” Houston criminal defense attorney John Floyd told the Corsicana Daily Sun. It would seem Jackson chose wisely; Byrne’s attempts to retry the Willingham case are likely an easier lift in front of a jury than before a panel of lawyers.
On a breezy Tuesday morning before the trial began, I went in search of Johnny Webb. I’d read all about the various stories he’d offered regarding his testimony against Willingham, and about his alleged deal with Jackson, and I wanted to see if I could find the truth.
In some of his correspondence with Jackson, Webb complained that he was being bullied into recanting his trial testimony. In one letter, he wrote that members of the Aryan Brotherhood had put out a hit on him and the only way to save his life would be to recant his statements. In another letter, he wrote that he’d been “ambushed” in prison by two journalists. Webb wrote that the reporters said he and Jackson together had “murdered” Willingham. He said he told them only what Willingham had told him, “and I sure didn’t lie.”
Webb has also said that Jackson coerced him into concocting a false story about Willingham in order to secure a conviction. That narrative started in 1992 and has resurfaced over the years, including in two interviews that attorneys working with the Innocence Project conducted in 2014.
“He said, well, let’s go over [what] I think needs to happen,” Webb recalled of his conversation with Jackson. “He says I’ve got this guy Willingham who did this. We know he did it. We know he’s guilty. We just can’t prove it.” In exchange for his help, Webb said Jackson told him that his robbery case would disappear. “He says, even if you’re convicted now, I can get it off of you later. And a matter of fact, he did try.”
In depositions taken in anticipation of Jackson’s trial, Webb apparently reiterated his claim of coercion, admitting that he’d perjured himself at Willingham’s trial — a crime for which Webb could still be prosecuted.
It was late morning by the time I parked across the street from the house I would later find out belongs to Webb’s mom. The crumbing bungalow had seen better days. A broken windowpane was haphazardly covered from the inside. A sign on a screen door warned that because of the rise in the price of ammo, there would be no warning shot. Two cats slept on the porch next to a half-eaten bowl of kibble. No one answered the door. As I turned to walk back to the car, I spotted a man across the street smoking a cigarette and watching me. I recognized him. “Are you Johnny Webb?” I called out. “I don’t know,” he said. “Am I?”
Indeed, he was. I introduced myself as a reporter and he recoiled, looking at me suspiciously. “I can’t give any interviews,” he said. I understand, I replied. But then he began talking. I asked him if he was prepared to testify in court; yes, he said, but he planned to invoke his Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination. Did that mean that what he’d said about being coerced was untrue, I asked him. He said that talking to the Innocence Project, “trying to fix things,” had cost him. He’s lost work — the contractor he worked with had to let him go, he said, once his boss’s well-connected clients found out Webb was on the crew — and wants nothing more than to get this behind him, get out of Corsicana, and start his life anew. “I thought I could change things,” he lamented about his involvement in the Willingham case. “I’ve learned that one man can’t.”
Jackson’s trial continues this week.