By Nina Morrison, Innocence Project
Judge John Jackson, who prosecuted Cameron Todd Willingham in the 1990s, recently wrote in the Corsicana Daily Sun that “facts” showing “overwhelming evidence” of Willingham’s guilt are being ignored. The truth is that all of the evidence that Jackson and his colleagues used to convict Willingham has been disproven. In the five years since Willingham was executed, several investigations – including an exhaustive report in the New Yorker this week — deconstruct all of the evidence and show that he was innocent.
Jackson himself now admits that the forensic case supporting the arson theory is “undeniably flawed” but he clings to the idea that Willingham was guilty, focusing on seven other points and shading each of them to conceal the truth:
1. Jackson claims Willingham beat his wife when she was pregnant in an attempt to end her pregnancies. In fact, Willingham’s wife has denied this and also told investigators he would never hurt his children.
2. Jackson claims Willingham’s burns were so minor that they must have been self-inflicted to fake evidence of trying to save his family. In fact, scientific experts have conducted experiments with identical fires and Willingham’s burns are normal for this type of fire.
3. Jackson claims medical tests show Willingham didn’t inhale smoke and thus didn’t try to rescue his family. In fact, Willingham tried desperately to go back into the house but firefighters physically restrained him.
4. Jackson claims Willingham refused to take a polygraph examination. This is true, but it is by no means evidence of guilt. Defense attorneys routinely advise their clients not to take polygraphs because they have proven unreliable (which is why they are not admissible in court).
5. Jackson likens Willingham to “violent sociopaths.” In fact, a prosecution expert who testified that Willingham was a “sociopath” was expelled from his professional association just three years later for unethical behavior, including making diagnoses without examining people. Willingham’s former probation officer and a judge both directly refute any notion that he was a sociopath.
6. Jackson claims Willingham meant to kill only his twins, citing the origin of the fire in their room and a witness who supposedly heard him whisper to his older daughter’s body that she wasn’t supposed to die. In fact, even the experts at Willingham’s trial admitted that they could not detect chemicals showing arson in the twins’ room. A grieving father telling his dead daughter that she wasn’t supposed to die is not evidence of guilt.
7. Jackson claims that a refrigerator in the house was pushed against a door, implying that Willingham moved it to trap the children inside. In fact, the refrigerator was covering a back door because there were two refrigerators in the small kitchen. The police detective and the fire chief who handled the case both now say that the refrigerator’s location does not support the theory that the fire was arson.
Readers can judge for themselves whether Jackson is deliberately coloring the truth or simply unable to see the facts of the case clearly, perhaps because he cannot face his own role in a great tragedy. But facts are facts — and they have already been obscured for far too long in this case.
Nina Morrison is a Staff Attorney at the Innocence Project. She has handled post-conviction cases in Texas for seven years and helped exonerate several people across the state through DNA testing.
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