“There are three forms of evidence against Cameron Todd Willingham — 1. Junk science. 2. Baseless conjecture. 3. Uh, uh, uh…get me another Tito’s and Ambien!”
In the 10 years since Texas executed Cameron Todd Willingham after convicting him on charges of setting his house on fire and murdering his three young daughters, family members and death penalty opponents have argued that he was innocent. Now newly discovered evidence suggests that the prosecutor in the case may have concealed a deal with a jailhouse informant whose testimony was a key part of the execution decision.
The battle to clear Mr. Willingham’s name has symbolic value because it may offer evidence that an innocent man was executed, something opponents of the death penalty believe happens more than occasionally. By contrast, Justice Antonin Scalia wrote seven years ago that he was unaware of “a single case — not one — in which it is clear that a person was executed for a crime he did not commit.”
What has changed is that investigators for the Innocence Project have discovered a curt handwritten note in Mr. Webb’s file in the district attorney’s office in Corsicana. The current district attorney, R. Lowell Thompson, made the files available to the Innocence Project lawyers, and in late November one of the lawyers, Bryce Benjet, received a box of photocopies.
As he worked through the stack of papers, he saw a note scrawled on the inside of the district attorney’s file folder stating that Mr. Webb’s charges were to be listed as robbery in the second degree, not the heavier first-degree robbery charge he had originally been convicted on, “based on coop in Willingham.”
In a sense, this new evidence is superfluous. Webb’s story — a jailhouse snitch asserting that someone who ended up getting executed because he wouldn’t cop a plea decided to spontaneously confess to a prisoner in another cell — doesn’t have a lot of room to get less credible. It underscores that the state of Texas always had nothing.
Admittedly, this isn’t an idea case to address Scalia’s claim, because this isn’t the kind of case (like a rock-solid albil) where we can know to an absolute certainty that Willingham is factually innocent. But there wasn’t even enough evidence for a responsible prosecutor to consider charging him, and as a condemnation of the death penalty that’s more than enough.