Jurors in the civil judicial-misconduct trial of John Jackson ruled 11 to 1 in his favor Wednesday evening at the Navarro County Courthouse.
“I need to give my profound thanks to a number of people, particularly my wife, family and friends who supported me emotionally and financially throughout this long nightmare,” Jackson said. “I particularly want to single out my attorneys Joe and Lana Byrne of Dallas for what I believe was a spectacular defense in this case.”
Jackson helped send Cameron Todd Willingham to death row, but the jury had to decide if he hid evidence that could have spared Willingham.
The civil judicial-misconduct trial took place in the Navarro County Courthouse where Jackson, then an assistant district attorney, in 1992 persuaded jurors to find Willingham guilty of capital murder for torching the Corsicana home in which his three young daughters died.
The adequacy of the arson evidence in Willingham’s high-profile trial was the subject of several critical investigations after the conviction.
But it’s the circumstances surrounding a purported jailhouse confession that prompted the New York-based Innocence Project to file a grievance against Jackson with the state bar association’s Commission for Lawyer Discipline.
According to the grievance, “... Jackson illegally and unethically made an undisclosed deal” with Willingham’s fellow inmate, Johnny E. Webb, to grant Webb a series of favors in return for testifying that Willingham confessed to the crime.
Webb subsequently recanted the testimony of Willingham’s alleged confession to setting the blaze in which his daughters died.
The Innocence Project has submitted an interview with Webb, “recorded in the presence of his current counsel, which supplements and corroborates the documentary record showing Jackson’s misconduct,” according to its grievance.
According to the bar commission’s petition, Jackson knew “before, during and after the 1992 trial ... of the existence of evidence that tended to negate the guilt of Willingham and failed to disclose that evidence to defense counsel.”
Moreover, “(Jackson) failed to make timely disclosure to the defense details of an agreement for favorable treatment for Webb, an inmate, in exchange for Webb’s testimony at trial for the state,” according to the petition.
Before the trial, Jackson also said he had no evidence favorable to Willingham, who was executed in 2004, according to the petition.
Jackson, who went on to become a district judge, also worked to have Webb’s conviction changed from aggravated robbery to robbery, and requested early parole for Webb with the Board of Pardons and Paroles, the bar alleged.
Jackson signed warrants for Webb so he would be transferred from prison to the Navarro County jail.
Damara Watkins, a Corsicana attorney who worked with Jackson when he was first-assistant DA, said Jackson is “very well respected” with “a reputation for being fair in the district attorney’s office and as a judge.”
Jackson could have opted to have a bar association evidentiary panel hear the case, but chose a district-court hearing instead.
In closing arguments Tuesday afternoon, Joe Byrne said Webb, who was the prosecution’s star witness, doesn’t exactly have a close relationship with the truth. For two days during the 12-day trial, Byrne covered Webb’s mental illness, bipolar disorder, his multiple psych meds as well as his “crimes of moral turpitude,” which include drugs, robbery, burglary and theft. Webb also pleaded the Fifth Amendment as his answer to many questions.
“He is a pathological liar,” Byrne said. “He will say anything about anyone to shift his situation. He blames others when he gets in trouble ... but he’s not dumb. Don’t underestimate him.”
The other handful of witnesses called by the state really helped make a stronger case for the defense, Byrne argued. He maintained that everyone who testified both for the prosecution and for the defense — all except Johnny Webb — all said John Jackson is a good guy who “tells the truth.” Byrne said Pat Bachelor, who was the district attorney at the time, had a strict rule, which was “no deals for snitches,” as well as an open file policy. Bachelor said on the stand that Jackson “is the gold standard.”
Byrne also said in closing arguments that Robert Hinton of the Innocence Project said himself that Webb’s testimony was a “sociopathic story,” and that Jackson is a man of “high character.”
Kerri Anderson Donica, Corsicana Criminal Defense Attorney, who testified as a witness, was emotional following Wednesday’s verdict.
“I’ve never known a man with more integrity than John Jackson,” she said. “I said in my testimony if they needed to take his law license, they could take mine too. I believe in him that much, and obviously the jury agreed.”
Jackson’s brother Caleb said, although some may question the legal system, Wednesday’s verdict proved it works.
“The facts proved John not only upheld the law, but his conduct was exemplary,” he said. “Justice prevailed.”
This story contains archival information by Daily Sun State reporter John Austin.