What is a posthumous pardon?

The Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles has recently refused to issue a posthumous pardon for Cameron Todd Willingham. Willingham was executed in 2004 for the arson deaths of his three children. After working diligently on his case, the Innocence Project is disappointed with the board's decision.

A posthumous pardon is a pardon given to a person or persons after death. Once a pardon is granted, the records have to adjust to proclaim the named as innocent. Recently, Todd Willingham's family and attorneys executed an appeal to the governor and state parole board to reconsider the case in light of new evidence that he was wrongfully convicted of his killing his three young daughters.

In 1991, Cameron Todd Willingham was found guilty of setting a house fire in Corsicana that killed his three children. Exonerations for this type of crime are rare, but are possible due to the advances in the way fire investigators analyze burn patterns and other evidence today. New advocates for Willingham insist that he was innocent and the recently discovered evidence suggests his prosecutor secretly brokered a deal with a jailhouse snitch to testify in exchange for a reduced sentence. His conviction was based primarily on the testimony by that informant, who said that Willingham had confessed to the crime while they were cellmates.

Why would these new advocates believe this to be true? What type of evidence could link a prosecutor to making such a deal? Last fall Willingham's lawyers gained access to the informant's file where they found a note. A handwritten note said that the informant's charges were to be downgraded from first- to second-degree robbery, "based on coop in Willingham." The note was entered as evidence during the appeal. However, the prosecutor has alleged that he made no promises to the jailhouse informant.

After the decision was made by the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles, the Innocence Project was extremely disappointed. Co-director, Barry Scheck, criticized the decision stating that the decision "illustrates that the clemency system is completely broken in Texas."

Source: ABA Journal, Posthumous pardon denied for man executed for arson deaths; lawyers had cited new evidence, Debra Cassens Weiss, 4/4/14

LA Times, Lawyers push posthumous pardon in Texas Arson case, Molly Hennessy-Fiske, 3/28/14

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