Texas Prosecutor on Trial for Prosecutorial Misconduct
Prosecutorial misconduct is a problem of epidemic proportions in this country. There is lots of discussion in criminal justice circles (and elsewhere) about how best to rein in these rogues and stop the rampant injustice created by prosecutorial misconduct.
For more on the severity and seriousness of the prosecutorial misconduct problem in Texas, read our past discussions in:
- Prosecutorial Misconduct: How Bad Is It? Dallas Chief Investigator Pleads Guilty to Taking Bribe
- Prosecutorial Misconduct in Texas Murder Trials: Prosecutors Fighting Against Misconduct Allegations
- Prosecutorial Misconduct in Texas Alert: Ethical Rules Held to Have Broader Duty Than Brady to Turn Over Exculpatory Evidence to the Defense
- District Attorneys Keep Doing Bad Things: More Texas Prosecutorial Misconduct Stories
- Prosecutorial Misconduct Still a Big, Big Problem: District Attorneys Do Bad Things.
Punishing the Prosecutor for Misconduct: Facing the Consequences
Thing is, all too often the prosecutor does not face much in the way of consequences if he or she is discovered to have committed misconduct. No wonder many fall prey to the temptation to cross the line in order to win a conviction.
Possible punishments include suspension of their license to practice law; disbarment; termination of their employment as a prosecutor; and a bar from representing the government in a prosecutorial role in the future. These are not criminal matters, as a general rule so there’s no jail time or monetary fines at issue here.
The weakness in the system of having serious consequences follow discovered prosecutorial misconduct that serves to keep this problem alive – and rampant in many jurisdictions.
Which is one reason why it’s such a big deal that a former prosecutor is now on trial over in Corsicana, Texas.
Texas Prosecutor in Cameron Todd Willingham Conviction on Trial for Misconduct
Last Monday they started picking a jury in the trial of John Jackson, who served as prosecutor in the 1992 capital murder trial of Cameron Todd Willingham.
Mr. Willingham was convicted and sentenced to death in that trial; he was executed by lethal injection back in 2004. It is now widely believed that Cameron Todd Willingham was innocent of those charges and that the State of Texas executed an innocent man.
Based upon revelations that have come to light since that murder trial, it is alleged by the Innocence Project, among others, that not only was unreliable “junk science” used in the arson evidence presented to the jury, but that backdoor deals were made with a jailhouse snitch to falsely implicate Mr. Willingham.
For details, read our discussion in “Prosecutorial Misconduct in Texas: Continuing Injustice .”
These allegations are more than rumor. They have become the basis of an ethics rule violation proceeding instituted by the State Bar of Texas. (These are called “grievance proceedings” and can result in a lawyer’s loss of license.)
Full Text of the July 2014 Grievance Filed Against John Jackson
Read the final Grievance against John Jackson submitted on July 25, 2014, by the Innocence Project to the Chief Disciplinary Counsel for the State Bar of Texas in the Michael Lowe Digital Library:
Civil Trial of Former Willingham Prosecutor John Jackson
Now, the Corsicana trial of Willingham’s prosecutor is not a criminal proceeding. It is a civil case based upon misconduct.
The civil trial will decide if the ex-prosecutor has violated the ethical rules he is sworn to uphold as a member of the State Bar of Texas. If he is found guilty, possible punishments range from a reprimand to disbarment. See, Punishment for Professional Misconduct at the State Bar of Texas’ website for details.
John Jackson isn’t facing any time behind bars even if a jury does find that he committed prosecutorial misconduct. He won’t lose even an hour of freedom even if that misconduct resulted in the 2004 execution of an innocent man accused of the burning death of his children.
The grievance was filed by the Innocence Project (IP) against John Jackson. This began the process for the Chief Disciplinary Counsel and the Commission for Lawyer Discipline of the State Bar of Texas to investigate the allegations found in the grievance.
Part of the grievance documentation was IP investigator’s recorded interview with Johnny E. Webb, who was Willingham’s inmate after he was arrested and charged for killing his three daughters. Webb had his lawyer present during the interview.
In the recording, Webb details how Jackson made a deal with him in exchange for Webb testifying against Willingham.
The Webb statements are quite a smoking gun in this case. But that’s not all. The IP have also reported confirmation that Webb benefited from subsequent actions taken by the then-prosecutor.
The IP grievance and State Bar complaint also contain factual support for their allegations that prosecutor Jackson: (1) sought early parole for Mr. Webb after (2) he tried to have Webb’s conviction changed to a lesser charge of robbery (instead of aggravated robbery). Webb succeeded in (3) getting Webb moved out of a Texas prison down to the local Navarro County jail, too.
Why This Trial is a Big Event
There are several reasons why the Jackson proceeding is very important to all Texas and for justice in this state.
First, of course, having any head prosecutor or district attorney accused of misconduct here in Texas is a big deal. That does not happen all to prosecutors that often.
Second, this proceeding against John Jackson is a big deal because it’s so serious. Was an innocent man executed because of the bad acts of a prosecutor? This is the most serious scenario imaginable for prosecutorial misconduct. It doesn’t get worse than this.
Third, this is a big event for Texas insofar as this is a public proceeding up at the Navarro County Courthouse. Witnesses will take the stand; documents will be admitted into evidence, all in open court.
Heck, Corsicana is only 60-odd miles from Dallas. We could drive up there and watch some of the proceeding from here in Dallas County if we chose to do so.
Most grievance proceedings are done quietly in State Bar proceedings, not in a district trial judge’s courtroom. The State Bar of Texas polices its own.
But in this proceeding, the public can watch it all happen as well as the local, state, and national media. The Washington Post and Slate Magazine, for example, are following this story. The Intercept has a reporter assigned to cover the full trial. So does the Corsicana Daily Sun.
Will Justice Be Served? No.
From a criminal justice perspective, this entire proceeding is bittersweet. It is good to see more and more people understanding the reality of prosecutorial misconduct and how dangerous it is to justice.
Prosecutor misconduct is an epidemic that needs to be stopped. But that’s not enough.
Because as this case points out, any amount of prosecutorial misconduct has the power to do great harm. And no matter how severe the punishment may be for the prosecutor, it may do little or nothing to rectify the miscarriage of justice that has resulted from the prosecutor’s bad acts.
Even if this proceeding results in the harshest of sentences for John Jackson, it does not help to reverse the horrific tragedy of the wrongful conviction and execution of Cameron Todd Willingham.
Imagine being accused and convicting of burning your daughters to death and then being executed for it. Imagine it. Assuming that the IP allegations in the grievance complaint are true, what could that prosecutor have been thinking?
The criminal justice system needs to address this overall inequity. For more, read this discussion by Derek Gilna on April 3, 2017, in the Prison Legal News, “Innocence Project Blasts Lack of Consequences from Prosecutorial Misconduct” and see the underlying March 2016 IP report, “Prosecutorial Oversight: A National Dialogue in the Wake of Connick v. Thompson.”
And until changes are made, it remains the honor and the burden of criminal defense attorneys everywhere to zealously endeavor to discover and thwart prosecutorial misconduct as best they can at every level (trial and appeal).
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