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Friday, September 11, 2009

Judge finds prosecutorial misconduct in permitting false informant testimony

A federal judge has ordered a new trial for four drug conspiracy defendants because the government permitted its lead witness--a criminal informant who received lenience in exchange for his testimony-- to lie on the stand. Chicago Tribune story here. Prosecutors have a well-established constitutional obligation not to permit false testimony-- such conduct violates the defendant's right to due process. This case is unusual in part because it is typically very hard to prove informant falsehoods to the satisfaction of a court; the violation here occurred and was litigated during the trial. In this case, the informant Senecca Williams testified that he had witnessed the defendants packaging and discussing drugs during 2002-2003, a period during which he was actually incarcerated and could not have witnessed those things. Williams also testified that the 2002 events took place in "the Granville apartment," whereas in fact defendant Freeman did not occupy that apartment until at least a year later and one defendant, Wilbourn, was never there at all.
The government maintained throughout that Williams was being truthful and that the government stood by his testimony. In concluding that the prosecutors engaged in misconduct, U.S. District Judge Joan Lefkow wrote:
It is well established that the prosecution may not use testimony it knows to be false. . . . The court cannot accept the government's glib assertion 'that Williams was at most merely mistaken about the dates of the occurrences about which he testified.' For Williams's testimony was false not only because the drug-related activities involving defendant Wilbourn that Williams recounted as occurring in late 2002 and early 2003 could not have taken place during that time period, but also because those events could not have occurred where Williams claimed they took place--the Granville apartment in which Wilbourn was never present.
The finding of prosecutorial misconduct resulted in a new trial for all four defendants on one count of the indictment; the defendants remain convicted of numerous other charges for which they await sentencing.