Did prosecutors in the controversial Cameron Todd Willingham case use false testimony to win a conviction? And did they hide information about that in order to keep the appeals court process and Governor Rick Perry in the dark? Those accusations were made Friday as a formal petition was made to give Willingham a full pardon.
It was a short walk to the office of Governor Rick Perry's legal counsel and the latest in a long journey. A small, but determined group walked from the State Capitol to the Dept. of Insurance building to deliver a petition Friday to the Governor. They want Perry to grant a pardon to convicted murderer, Cameron Todd Willingham, a man he once described as "a monster."
"My gut feeling, I'm very hopeful, said Innocence project Director Barry Scheck.
The noted New York attorney and San Antonio Defense Attorney Gerald Goldstein returned to Austin believing they have uncovered new information to clear Willingham's name.
"There has to be an investigation, there has to be a full accounting and airing how much proof do you need?" asked Scheck.
This letter could be pivotal in answering Scheck's question. It was written by Johnny Webb, a key witness in the Willingham trial. He recants his testimony that Willingham confessed to him while they were in jail together that he set the fire that killed his three children. Webb wrote prosecutors had forced him to lie.
"On the face of it, that's wrong doing by law enforcement officials," said Scheck.
Scheck and Goldstein claim Johnny Webb - who was in jail at the time for aggravated assault- was given a reduced sentence in return for - what they described as - false testimony. Here's the key point- Webb's recantal letter was written in 2000, four years before Willingham was executed.
"That letter appears to have remained in the district attorney's file; it never made it into the courts file it never made it into Mr. Willingham's file even though it was being reviewed by the court in his post-conviction, prior to his execution," said Goldstein.
The importance of the letter is magnified now that the arson investigation techniques used to convict Willingham are no longer considered to be valid. The defense team is convinced if Governor Perry knew about the letter, and the alleged sentencing deal, the execution would have been at least postponed. But there is still one other reported jail house confession that has to be considered.
In 2010, when the existence of the Webb letter first surfaced Stacey Kuykendall, Willingham's former wife, remained convinced of his guilt.
"He burnt them; he admitted he burnt them to me, and he was convicted for his crime," said Kuykendall during a news conference in October of 2010.
The handling of Webb's letter is somewhat similar to how critical evidence was allegedly withheld in Michael Morton's murder trial. The experience of being wrongfully convicted is why he joined Willingham's relatives in a private meeting with the governor's legal counsel. They emerged cautiously optimistic.
"It's just in his lap and hopefully on his heart," said Morton.
A spokesperson for the governor told FOX 7 the governor for now is leaving the issue up to the Board of Pardons and Parole.
The prosecutor in the Willingham case, John Jackson, is currently a senior State Judge. He did not return a call for comment, but he is quoted in the New York Times as saying the new accusation is "a complete fabrication."
Meanwhile, Johnny Webb has written, and sent a second letter. He now claims he has been put back in jail in retaliation for talking about his first letter.