The Uncommutable Sentence

Did Texas execute an innocent man in 2004? The story behind the prosecution (and eventual execution) of Cameron Todd Willingham suggests that’s exactly what happened. Here’s the chilling bit:


Since Willingham was executed in 2004, officials have continued to defend the account of the informer, Johnny E. Webb, even as a series of scientific experts have discredited the forensic evidence that Willingham might have deliberately set the house fire in which his toddlers were killed.

But now new evidence has revived questions about Willingham’s guilt: In taped interviews, Webb, who has previously both recanted and affirmed his testimony, gives his first detailed account of how he lied on the witness stand in return for efforts by the former prosecutor, John H. Jackson, to reduce Webb’s prison sentence for robbery and to arrange thousands of dollars in support from a wealthy Corsicana rancher. Newly uncovered letters and court files show that Jackson worked diligently to intercede for Webb after his testimony and to coordinate with the rancher, Charles S. Pearce Jr., to keep the mercurial informer in line.

“Mr. Pierce and I visit on a regular basis concerning your problems,” Jackson wrote to Webb in August 2000, eight years after the trial, when his former witness was threatening to recant. (Jackson misspelled the rancher’s last name.) “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.”

Along with Webb’s account, the letters and documents expose a determined, years-long effort by the prosecutor to alter Webb’s conviction, speed his parole, get him clemency and move him from a tough state prison back to his hometown jail. Had such favorable treatment been revealed prior to his execution, Willingham might have had grounds to seek a new trial.


Read the whole thing. It’s a long enough piece that I’m two days behind blogging about it, but it’s well worth your time.

My own feelings about the death penalty are mixed. Our Founders had the chance to abolish the death penalty, had they so desired. Instead, the Fifth Amendment establishes the rules under which a person may be deprived of “life, liberty, or property.” That’s a pretty clear endorsement of the death penalty. Execution wasn’t unheard of in early America, but the number of punishable offenses was far smaller then, too.

We live under a much larger and more intrusive government — at both the federal and state levels — than the Founders ever envisioned. Prosecutorial misconduct has grown along with the number of criminal statutes, into a very real and very serious problem. As government has grown, so has its ability, and its appetite, to punish. We know for a fact that overzealous (to put it mildly) prosecutors have put innocent people in jail, and here we have a case, perhaps not the first or only case, where an innocent man may have been put to death.

Under these circumstances, and if what we’re learning about the Willingham prosecution is true, then it should be very difficult indeed for any principled small-government conservative to continue to support the death penalty except in the most extreme and airtight cases, and only after an exhaustive review of the prosecution and its methods.


And if Willingham does turn out to have been wrongly killed by the state of Texas, his prosecutors should be tried on murder charges of their own.


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