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Alvarez: I won’t prosecute every witness suspected of lying on stand

After taking oath from Vincent M. Gaughan for her second term as State's Attorney Cook County AnitAlvarez talks about her

After taking the oath from Vincent M. Gaughan for her second term as State's Attorney of Cook County, Anita Alvarez talks about her future plans for the office. . | Al Podgorski~Chicago Sun-Times

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Updated: July 25, 2014 6:23AM

Cook County State’s Attorney Anita Alvarez is assuring a group of former judges and prosecutors that she doesn’t intend to prosecute every witness suspected of lying on the stand.

“My office does not take the decision to charge a perjury case lightly and this charge is brought in only very limited circumstances,” she said in a letter to a group of attorneys including former Gov. Jim Thompson and retired appeals court judge Abner Mikva.

Twenty-three high-profile attorneys wrote to Alvarez in April to express their concerns about perjury charges she brought against Willie Johnson after he recanted his testimony in a murder trial.

Their letter called the prosecution of Johnson “contrary to the interests of justice” and warned a conviction could “chill future witness recantations.”

In her response earlier this month, Alvarez wrote: “It is appropriate to prosecute perjury only in which it can be proven beyond a reasonable doubt that a recantation, as opposed to prior testimony, is false.”

Sally Daly, a spokeswoman for Alvarez, said her office prosecutes about 10 perjury cases a year. But over the past four years, Johnson was the only witness charged with perjury for recanting testimony in a post-conviction hearing, she said.

In her letter, Alvarez explained why she believes the perjury charges against Johnson were justified.

Johnson, 43, was wounded in a West Side shooting that killed two friends in 1992. He told police one of the shooters was nicknamed “Duke” and said he knew the suspects because they lived on his block, according to Alvarez.

In the hospital, Johnson picked the men out of a photo array. Later, he testified against them at trial. They were convicted and sentenced to life in prison.

At a January 2011 post-conviction hearing for the men, Johnson recanted his trial testimony. He said a different man was responsible for the shootings.

But he said he was afraid to point his finger at the actual shooter in 1992. Johnson claimed he received threatening calls in the hospital telling him not to implicate the man.

At the 2011 post-conviction hearing, prosecutors revealed that Johnson, a self-described “retired” member of the Vice Lords, got a phone call from reputed gang leader Ray Longstreet before Johnson signed an affidavit recanting his 1994 trial testimony.

Cook County Judge Michael Brown found that Johnson lied on Longstreet’s behalf.

“I have no idea why the Vice Lords through Mr. Longstreet would urge Willie Johnson to come forward,” Brown said. “Nonetheless, it does not appear to be for a desire to see that criminal justice . . . is done, but to further their ends.”

Brown ruled against the convicted shooters, who remain in prison. An appeals court upheld Brown’s decision, saying: “Johnson recanted out of allegiance to the Vice Lords and not out of [a] reason related to justice.”

In her letter, Alvarez said she’s confident prosecutors will be able to show Johnson lied on the witness stand in 2011. “We certainly believe the requisite evidence exists to prove this case beyond a reasonable doubt,” she said.

The next court hearing on Johnson’s perjury charges is scheduled for Aug. 12.

Johnson, who now lives out of state, was sentenced to 18 years in prison for attempted murder and armed robbery in 1995. He previously served a prison term on a drug conviction, records show.

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