Perjured Testimony Influences Wrongful Convictions
article authored by Rob Warden, executive director of the Center on Wrongful Convictions at Northwestern University School of Law, examined how perjury by prosecution witnesses has long plagued the criminal justice. In the wake of Rubin “Hurricane” Carter’s passing last week, Warden recalled how a recantation in Carter’s case went ignored for more than a decade because within the legal system recantations are thought to be inherently unreliable. Warden writes:
Contrary to the myth, experience has shown that recantations often are credible, as they were in Rubin’s case and have proved to have been in at least 18 cases here in Cook County.
The best-known Cook County recantation occurred in what might be called, for lack of a better name, the rape that wasn’t—the case of Gary Dotson. His accuser, Cathleen Webb, née Crowell, was 16 when she claimed she’d been raped in 1977. Six years later, she recanted, saying she’d concocted the story out of fear that she’d been impregnated by her boyfriend and just wanted a cover story for her parents. Her fear proved unfounded, but not until police goaded her into identifying Dotson. The system rejected her recantation—until it was proven true by DNA testing in 1989.
Although laws in many states, including Illinois, permit prosecutions for perjury, prosecutors never charged Cathleen Webb or the other recanting witnesses in the Cook County cases. Cook County State’s Attorney Anita Alvarez wants to break that trend by pursuing a perjury case against a recanting witness named Willie Johnson, who testified in 2011 that he lied in 1994 when he testified against two young men—Cedric Cal and Albert Kirkman—accused of killing two of his friends in a gang-related shooting on the South Side of Chicago.
The Center on Wrongful Convictions represents Cal, who remains in prison based solely on Johnson’s recanted testimony. Johnson, who was shot nine times in the same shooting, now says he knew Cal was innocent but was afraid to name one of the actual killers. Nearly two decades later, Johnson’s fear passed and he came forward with the truth at a hearing for relief for Cal and Kirkman.
The response from Alvarez’s office was to indict Johnson for perjury. Warden writes: “The trouble with the Alvarez approach is that it stands to chill recantations across the board—truthful or untruthful—which clearly is contrary to the interest of justice and the integrity of Cook County criminal justice system. There is a sensible alternative. Prosecutors have broad discretion, and in the cases of witness recantations they should use it to decline any perjury prosecution unless they can prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the recantation — as opposed to the recanted testimony—is false.”
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