Early last September, Corsicana Daily Sun reporter Janet Jacobs canvassed many of the original investigators and prosecutors in the Willingham case. Craig Beyler’s report for the Texas Forensic Science Commission had come out a few weeks earlier, and David Grann’s epic piece was in the current issue of the New Yorker. Despite the back-to-back beatings their work had just taken, the title of Jacobs’ article — “No Doubts” — perfectly captures the sentiment of the old-timers she spoke with. Their reactions are classic — non-stop defensiveness punctuated by ad hominem jabs at the busybody outsiders and their fancy liberal causes, with a few red herrings thrown in for good measure. A few points in Beyler’s report are raised and dismissed, but mostly the interviewees dwell contemptuously on the things they’ve always known. And there’s nothing they’re more certain of that what kind of person Willingham was — a “sociopath,” a “monster,” and according to one of the prosecutors, “one of the most evil people I’ve ever come in contact with in my life.”
John Jackson is a bit of an exception. He was the lead prosecutor at Willingham’s trial, and went on to be a district court judge. He doesn’t have any doubts, either, but he did manage to respond to some of the substance of the criticism with equanimity. In an op-ed published in late August he acknowledges “the undeniably flawed forensic report” and then lists evidence that’s independent of that report and still, in his opinion, supports the guilty verdict. None of his points are very good and some are truly awful, but at least he wasn’t dismissing Beyler as just another expert who’ll say anything for a fee or slamming the Innocence Project as an “absolute farce.”
A few weeks later, Jackson was interviewed for a Nightline piece about the Willingham case. His tone is still moderate but his claims are a good bit wilder — there’s nothing like TV to get people to take leave of their senses, I guess. The bombshell is his belief that Willingham was “obsessed with Satan-like figures and that sort of thing” and even burned a pentagram into the floor of his childrens’ bedroom.