Speed Reads

Capital Punishment

New evidence emerges that Texas may have killed innocent man

Maurice Possley of The Marshall Project, writing in The Washington Post, reports that new evidence has emerged showing that Texas wrongly executed Cameron Todd Willingham in 2004 for killing his three daughters. Willingham is widely considered to be the first known case of an innocent man being put to death by the U.S. justice system.

The forensic case against Willingham — he was accused of setting fire to the house where his daughters were sleeping in 1991 — fell apart long ago. (Debunking the accusations of arson was a key aspect of a famous New Yorker profile of Willingham.) That left the testimony of Johnny E. Webb, a felon who had shared a prison cell with Willingham and who had testified that Willingham had confessed to the crime.

In recent interviews with the Innocence Project, Webb reportedly recanted those claims. Egged on by John H. Jackson, a former prosecutor, Webb reportedly implicated Willingham in exchange for Jackson's help in reducing his sentence.

"He [Jackson] 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?"

In fact, Webb said, Willingham "never told me nothing." [The Washington Post]

The state of Texas has long defended Willingham's execution. As recently as 2009, Gov. Rick Perry (R) maintained that Willingham was a "monster."