The Fight to Pardon a Texas Man Executed for Murder Ten Years Ago

It's been nearly ten years since Texas convict Cameron Todd Willingham was executed for the 1991 murder of his three young daughters. Today, Willingham's family members joined forces with exoneree Michael Morton and the Evidence Project to renew calls for Willingham's posthumous pardon.

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It's been nearly ten years since Texas convict Cameron Todd Willingham was executed for the 1991 murder of his three young daughters and four since journalist David Grann pointed—rather convincingly—to his innocence in a massive investigative piece for The New Yorker. Today, fueled by new evidence, Willingham's family members have joined forces with exoneree Michael Morton and the Evidence Project to renew calls for his posthumous pardon.

Willingham maintained his innocence throughout his adult life, notably refusing to plead guilty in exchange for a life sentence, and used his last words to ask that his name be cleared. But by the time an Austin fire investigator, among others, concluded that the evidence of arson was based on "junk science," it was too late; Governor Rick Perry ignored Willingham's appeals, and he was executed in 2004. The New Yorker piece arrived in 2009, shortly after yet another expert concluded that Willingham was likely innocent.

Today, in addition to new evidence of Willingham's innocence, the Innocence Project is alleging corruption in the trial, the Texas Tribune reports:

Barry Scheck, co-founder of the Innocence Project, said the organization has uncovered new evidence that the prosecutor who tried Willingham paid favors to the jailhouse informant whose testimony—along with arson science that has since been debunked—was a key factor in the young father's conviction. 

In a powerful letter to Governor Rick Perry, Willingham's family, along with Scheck, points out that a major witness in the trial has since recanted his testimony, saying he was "made to lie." Under a 2009 law, this would have provided Willingham a right to relief:

Johnny Webb, a jailhouse informant who had been sentenced to 15 years for aggravated Robbery, testified that Willingham confessed to murdering his children in an effort to cover up child abuse by his wife Stacey. But years before Willingham’s execution, Johnny Webb acknowledged in a handwritten motion that he lied about the confession.

Plus, as the undersigned detail in an accompanying "Petition for Posthumous Pardon," the science supposedly confirming Willingham's guilt has since been disproven. The New York Times summarized the evolving understanding of arson evidence in 2012, when the family first pushed for a pardon (though Grann's piece offers a far more detailed look):

The original report noted burn patterns on the floor and cracks in the window as clear evidence that Mr. Willingham had spread accelerants. But no such chemicals were found in the house, and today fire scientists say that such patterns are evidence not of arson but simply of very hot fires.

On one level, a pardon would be comfortingly symbolic—it would clear Willingham's name, fulfill his dying wish, and provide his family with some semblance of closure. And even if he weren't innocent (which he probably was), he's dead. It's not like Texas would be letting a murderer walk free.

But more practically, it could do much to overturn or prevent false convictions in similar arson cases in Texas or nationwide. As the Times reported in 2010, such a reversal could do much to debunk Antonin Scalia's claim in a 2006 ruling that there is not "a single case—not one—in which it is clear that a person was executed for a crime he did not commit."

That's more than symbolic, a fact perhaps no one understands better than Michael Morton, the exoneree joining the call for Willingham's pardon.

Top photo of Allan B. Polunsky Unit by Texas Department of Criminal Justice via Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain. Photo of Willingham: Associated Press.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.