Supporters call for Willingham pardon, cite new evidence

Citing new evidence of wrongdoing in the prosecution of Cameron Todd Willingham, with nationally known exoneree Michael Morton a supporter, a national advocacy group that focuses on wrongful convictions asked Gov. Rick Perry on Friday to order an investigation into whether Willingham was wrongfully executed in 2004 and should be posthumously pardoned.

Willingham’s conviction and execution for torching his home and killing his three daughters has been the subject of intense controversy for years, as the forensic science used to convict him was discredited and as new questions about details of the blaze have emerged.

Last year, Willingham’s family filed a posthumous petition with the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles asking the state to pardon Willingham, but no action was taken. On Friday, the Innocence Project filed an amended petition presenting what the group called newly discovered evidence that points to possible false testimony at his trial and possible prosecutorial misconduct.

“Todd’s dying wish was that we help clear his name, and we can’t let this go until the state acknowledges the grave injustice that Todd suffered,” said Eugenia Willingham, Willingham’s stepmother.

Patricia Willingham Cox, Willingham’s cousin, said a miscarriage of justice should be corrected.

“The more we learn about Todd’s case, the more we see how tragically the system failed him,” she said. “The Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles has the power to finally conduct a thorough investigation into his case, and we urge it to do so for the sake of all Texans who deserve a clemency system that values justice over mere finality.”

After a morning press conference at the state Capitol, Morton — who was cleared of killing his wife in 2011 in a Williamson County wrongful conviction case that made national headlines — walked with Willingham’s relatives to deliver a letter to Perry seeking a meeting to explain why an investigation is needed.

“There are only two mistakes one can make on the road to truth: not going all the way and not starting,” said Barry Scheck, co-director of the Innocence Project. “The reason an investigation is so critical in this case isn’t to affix blame on Gov. Perry or any one individual. Everyone has responsibility, if not for making errors, then for failing to detect them.”

Perry has previously made it clear he is convinced Willingham was guilty. Perry’s office had no comment on the new plea for an investigation and clemency.

Representatives of the Innocence Project, which has worked for years to clear Willingham’s name, said they have discovered evidence indicating that the prosecutor who tried Willingham elicited false testimony from and lobbied for early parole for a jailhouse informant in the case.

They said the informant, Johnny Webb, told a Corsicana jury during the trial that Willingham confessed to setting the deadly blaze in 1991, but later recanted. His about-face was not disclosed.

Prosecutors in the case could not be reached for comment, but they have previously said they remain convinced Willingham was guilty.

Officials with the state Board of Pardons and Paroles, which would have to investigate the case for a possible pardon if Perry requests one, declined comment.

Officials with the Innocence Project noted that Willingham was convicted mostly on testimony by fire investigators, based on conclusions that have since been discredited by advances in fire science. The state Forensic Science Commission agreed in April 2011 that the arson science used to convict Willingham was faulty.

Scheck said that during the trial, Webb — who was in jail facing an aggravated robbery charge — insisted he was not promised anything for testifying. He had pleaded to the charge of robbing a woman at knife point.

But Scheck said prosecutors several years later interceded to reduce Webb’s 15-year prison sentence by reclassifying the crime as robbery, not aggravated robbery. They said in correspondence that Webb was being threatened by prison gangs because he testified for prosecutors in the Willingham case.

Innocence Project attorneys said their research shows that Webb admitted in 2000 in a statement that prosecutors had asked him to lie. That statement was provided to a judge who was a former prosecutor in the case but was never made available to Willingham’s attorneys before he was executed in February 2004, Scheck said.

“I was forced to testify against Willingham by the D.A.s (sic) office and other officials,” Webb said in the statement. “Willingham is innocent of all charges.”

“In recent years, our state has made great strides in heeding the lessons learned from wrongful convictions,” said state Sen. Rodney Ellis, a Houston Democrat who chairs the Innocence Project’s board. “But the Willingham case remains a powerful reminder of how much more needs to be done to restore public’s trust in the system.”

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