Updated: November 9, 2011 12:15PM
How many cases do we know of in Cook County in which innocent people have been freed from prison after a witness admitted lying?
How many cases do we know of in which guilty people have been freed from prison because a witness recanted years later?
So it’s disturbing to see that Cook County prosecutors have charged a man with perjury because he recanted his 2004 testimony that led to life sentences for two other men. Such a perjury charge, which is unusual, could discourage future witnesses with guilty consciences from coming forward with the truth.
We understand the frustrations prosecutors face when witnesses change their stories. If a witness provides helpful information early in a case, but then recants it, prosecutors will tell you their first thought is that the witness was threatened or paid off. At that stage, the threat of a perjury charge might well keep a witness honest.
We also understand the value of finality once a jury returns a verdict. No office has the resources to retry the same cases over and over.
But authorities should be wary of charging witnesses with perjury long after a case has been concluded and when there is little risk a guilty person will go free. Under the law, a simple recantation without supporting evidence isn’t good enough to open the prison doors. Generally, a judge rules the recantation is not credible, and nothing happens. The judge orders a new trial only if there is good reason to believe the witness finally is telling the truth.
Perhaps the best-known case in Cook County of recanted testimony is that of Gary Dotson, who was convicted in 1979 of rape and aggravated kidnapping and sentenced to 25 to 50 years in prison.
In 1985, the presumed victim, Cathleen Crowell Webb, after talking with her pastor, admitted that she had lied and had never been raped. A judge ruled that her new testimony was not credible, but ultimately DNA evidence exonerated Dotson, and he was freed.
Do we really want to discourage witnesses such as Webb from coming forward to set things right?
That’s easy to envision now that prosecutors have charged Willie Johnson with perjury for changing his story. One way or the other, they say, he lied under oath and that’s a crime.
Johnson, 40, testified in January at a post-conviction hearing that he had identified the wrong men in a 2004 murder trial at which he testified against Cedric Cal and Albert Kirkman in a 1992 West Side shooting. Johnson was wounded in the shooting and two other men were killed.
Johnson’s lawyer, Steve Greenberg, said Johnson has “turned his life to God” and was troubled with the idea that he had sent innocent men to prison because he was afraid of the real killer. But Judge Michael Brown ruled Johnson’s revised testimony was not credible and refused to reverse the convictions of Cal and Kirkman.
Now that the judge has ruled, does it serve the search for truth to charge Johnson with perjury?
Some lawyers will argue that a witness who admits lying deserves to pay the price because an injustice has been done. Others will say perjury charges at this point serve only as a deterrent to future witnesses who want to come clean.
Sally Daly, a spokeswoman for Cook County State’s Attorney Anita Alvarez, cited cases in which similar charges have been filed, including one in which a witness recanted in 2002. Overall, the office has filed about 65 perjury cases over the past five years.
“We don’t see it as overreaching or having a chilling effect on anyone,” Daly said. She also said that her office intends to file similar charges “whenever appropriate.”
We trust that won’t be so often that witnesses willing to speak the truth are afraid to come forward.