Cook County State's Attorney Anita Alvarez speaks to the City Club of Chicago on April 8, 2014. | Richard A. Chapman/Sun-Times
Former judges, ex-prosecutors urge Alvarez to drop perjury case
A who’s who of former judges and prosecutors have signed a letter expressing concerns about a perjury prosecution against a man who recanted his 1994 testimony in a murder trial.
The letter to Cook County State’s Attorney Anita Alvarez said the prosecution of Willie Johnson could discourage other people from recanting prior testimony.
Johnson, 42, was wounded in a West Side shooting that killed two friends in 1992. He identified the gunmen at trial.
But in 2011, he changed his story at a post-conviction hearing for Cedric Cal and Albert Kirkman, who are serving life sentences for the killings. Johnson told a judge he identified the wrong men in 1994, but the judge didn’t believe him and refused to reverse the convictions.
The state’s attorney’s office then charged Johnson with perjury. Johnson, who lives out of state, was freed after posting 10 percent of a $20,000 bond. His next hearing in the perjury case is scheduled for June 2.
Sally Daly, a spokeswoman for the state’s attorney’s office, said the perjury case against Johnson is being “prosecuted in good faith.”
“The office pursues perjury in very limited circumstances and only when it is appropriate to do so,” Daly said. “We would never charge cases to deter truthful testimony. Lying under oath in an effort to falsely exculpate a convicted criminal should, however, be deterred.”
Johnson is a convicted felon who’s been in prison for drug possession and armed robbery.
He has sought to have the perjury charges dropped, claiming he was the subject of a “vindictive prosecution” and that the statute of limitations expired. But Judge Dennis Porter denied those requests, records show.
On April 24, a group of 23 distinguished attorneys sent Alvarez a letter saying: “We believe the prosecution of Mr. Johnson is contrary to the interests of justice.”
“Mr. Johnson’s conviction would chill future witness recantations, thereby depriving those who stand convicted of crimes they may not have committed of a fair opportunity to obtain post-conviction relief,” the letter said.
Among those who signed the letter were former U.S. attorneys Dan Webb and Jim Thompson, also a former governor; former Illinois Attorney General Tyrone Fahner; former Kane County State’s Attorney Gary Johnson; former federal appeals judge Abner Mikva; former U.S. District Judge George Leighton; former Illinois appeals judges Dom Rizzi and Warren Wolfson; former assistant U.S. attorney and noted author Scott Turow; and former assistant U.S. attorney Lori Lightfoot, who also ran the agency that investigates allegations of misconduct involving Chicago Police officers.
The former judges and prosecutors acknowledged Johnson must have been lying either at the 1994 trial or in the 2011 post-conviction hearing. But they said perjury charges should only be pursued when prosecutors believe they can prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the recantation was false.
“In other words, we believe that no perjury prosecution should be based simply on the fact that a recantation materially contradicts a witness’s previous testimony,” the letter said.
Johnson’s attorney, Steve Greenberg, said he believes witnesses unfavorable to the prosecution are charged with perjury far more often than “pro-state” witnesses — such as police officers whose testimony is deemed false in court.
“I understand why the law is written the way it is in theory, but the state’s attorney has to be careful about how it is applied,” said Greenberg, who is representing Johnson free of charge.