Cameron Todd Willingham was executed in Texas in 2004. His conviction was based largely on forensic evidence of arson that both prosecutors and defense attorneys now agree was seriously flawed. Prosecutors have maintained that other evidence pointed towards Willingham’s guilt, especially the testimony of a jailhouse informant who said Willingham confessed to the crime of murdering his children. Now according to an investigative article by Maurice Possley for the Marshall Project and published in the Washington Post, newly uncovered letters and court records suggest that the informant, Johnny Webb, received special treatment and a reduced sentence in exchange for his testimony. The jury was told that Webb had not received any deal in return for his testimony. However, the prosecutor in Willingham’s case wrote to Webb in prison and contradicted those claims. He wrote, “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.” According to Webb, the prosecutor told him, “If you help me, that robbery will disappear … even if you’re convicted now, I can get it off of you later.” Webb now says Willingham “never told me nothing.” The prosecutor also arranged for Webb to receive financial assistance from a wealthy rancher who was interested in helping at-risk young men.

The prosecutor showed Webb photos of the fire scene and persuaded Webb of Willingham’s guilt: “He 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?” The arson scientists who testified against Willingham said the fire that killed his children was intentionally set. That testimony has since been debunked, with modern investigation methods suggesting that the fire was accidental. Though this evidence was presented before Willingham’s execution, he was denied a stay and was executed on February 17, 2004.

(M. Possley, “Fresh doubts over a Texas execution,” Washington Post, August 3, 2014). See Innocence and Arbitrariness.