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Affidavits Must Remain, And Must Be Enforced

Willie Johnson was shot nine times outside his home in 1992. Two of his friends were also shot. They died.

The investigation and conviction in the case moved swiftly. The shooting, after all, took place right out on the street. Johnson’s statement against the two offenders, Cedric Cal and Albert Kirkman, was the key testimony that led to their convictions and life sentences.

But that wasn’t the end of their case.

The two men, represented by prominent wrongful conviction law firms, made a bid for their freedom in a post-conviction hearing in 2011. The foundation of their claim was provided by Johnson himself, who said he was lying about the two men being guilty at the original trial.

Neither the prosecutors under Anita Alvarez nor the judge believed Johnson’s retraction of his trial testimony. The judge rejected the petition. Prosecutors, pointing to the evidence that Johnson had been engaged in phone conversations with a high-ranking gang member in federal prison before he traveled from Louisiana and testified in the hearing, charged Johnson with perjury.

Perjury charges arising from a wrongful conviction bid are almost unheard of in Chicago. The unusual decision to charge Johnson initiated a furious response from many anti-police quarters of the city, who posed the bizarre argument that Johnson should not have been charged because it would discourage witnesses from coming forward in other cases that could undermine convictions.  

Chicago Tribune:

[Johnson’s] attorney, Steve Greenberg, said the indictment is the first of its kind that he's aware of stemming from post-conviction motions, and that it could have a "chilling effect" on witnesses who want to come forward and recant previous testimony.

 "When the state starts indicting people for perjury like this, eventually that will lead to suppressing the truth," he said…

Northwestern University Law School's Center for Wrongful Convictions spokesman Rob Warden called the charges "beyond outrageous."

But isn’t perjury a crime? And if a man commits perjury in a case, particularly one that could have resulted in two killers being sprung from prison, shouldn’t he be charged?

Other prominent members of the criminal justice system also attacked Alvarez.

The Chicago Tribune:

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.

Even Lori Lightfoot, president of the Chicago Police Board and former head of the agency that investigated allegations of police misconduct, the Office of Professional Standards, signed the letter.

Why? If the two men were released, a civil lawsuit could not have been far behind. And if the two men argued in that lawsuit that they were falsely convicted, wasn’t it likely that the detectives would have been dragged into court again?

In the end, Johnson pled guilty to perjury and was sentenced to four and a half years. But he caught a strange break. Right before he was supposed to leave office, Governor Pat Quinn, without explanation, commuted Johnson’s sentence, and he was released from prison.

The Johnson case illuminates a central fact of the criminal justice system: People make false statements all the time, in the courts and against police officers resulting from their interactions with the public. For the police, dealing with false accusations is a routine part of the job.

This was one reason why the Fraternal Order of Police advocated for the state law mandating affidavits in complaints against the police. And, as a sign that the FOP’s arguments held merit, complaints dropped precipitously after the law was passed in 2004.

Nevertheless, criminal charges against individuals submitting false complaints are unheard of in Chicago. The affidavit law is therefore essentially unenforced, which begs a question: How many complaints against the police would there be if people were held legally accountable for them, just as the police are held accountable for their statements?

There is another reason why affidavits are essential. It has become standard practice in Chicago for attorneys and journalists to cite the number of complaints against an officer, regardless of whether these complaints was determined to be unfounded.

It’s a perfect scenario for the criminal street gangs. Simply file a complaint against the police officer investigating their criminal activity, knowing all along there will be no enforcement of the law demanding that the complaint be truthful, and then let the complaints against the officer pile up.

The mere number of complaints becomes the story in the media, not the veracity of them.

But there is other evidence that points to the fact that false allegations against the police are rife in the criminal justice system, even if the media, academics, and politicians will not consider or even acknowledge this evidence.

Pending in the federal civil courts are cases alleging widespread corruption in high-profile murder and rape cases in which the offenders were exonerated and released from prison.

In these cases, attorneys cite evidence of a pattern of gathering false affidavits in an attempt to garner the release of convicted offenders. This pattern, they argue, extends back decades, including killers on death row.

This alleged pattern of false affidavits is rarely, if ever, cited by the Chicago media. Indeed, the media has not even attended the hearings in which this pattern has been alleged. But the fact that the media has ignored these proceedings doesn’t diminish their significance. 

Last year more than 800 people were murdered in Chicago. Many of these killings were gang related, gangs that wage an incessant war against police officers and the public. The notion that citizens of Chicago should not be held accountable for making truthful accusations against the police is ludicrous and flies in the face of the basic tenets of the criminal justice system. It also makes effective policing that much more difficult.

Corrupt police officers should be investigated and punished. But the police must have due process rights that include punishment for those making false allegations against them. The evidence in these wrongful conviction cases, along with that of Willie Johnson, all point to the fact not only should the affidavit rules must remain, but they should also be enforced.