A 43-year-old Texas man was sentenced Tuesday to 30 months in prison for lying on the witness stand about a 1992 double murder in Chicago — even though a former Illinois governor and more than 20 other distinguished attorneys tried to stop the prosecution.
Those attorneys, including former Gov. Jim Thompson and retired federal appeals judge Abner Mikva, sent a letter to Cook County State’s Attorney Anita Alvarez in April, warning that the prosecution of Willie Johnson could chill future witness recantations in cases involving wrongful convictions.
But on Tuesday, Alvarez stood behind her decision to prosecute Johnson, who pleaded guilty in Cook County Criminal Court and was sentenced by Judge Dennis Porter.
“My office does not take the decision to charge perjury lightly and this charge is brought in very limited circumstances and only when it is appropriate to do so. We believe this was certainly the case in this particular matter and we are very pleased with today’s plea of guilty by this defendant,” Alvarez said in a prepared statement.
In the past four years, Johnson is the only person to be charged with perjury for recanting testimony in a post-conviction hearing in Cook County, according to the state’s attorney’s office.
Johnson became a witness in 1992 after he was wounded nine times in a West Side shooting that killed two friends.
At the time, he identified one of the shooters as “Duke” and said he knew the assailants because they lived on his block. Johnson picked the men from photos and testified against them at trial. They were convicted and got life sentences.
But on Jan. 19, 2011, Johnson testified at a post-conviction hearing for the men and said a different shooter was responsible. Johnson claimed he didn’t finger the actual shooter in 1992 because he was intimidated.
Prosecutors told Judge Michael Brown that Johnson changed his testimony after he received a phone call from gang leader Ray Longstreet.
Longstreet is a reputed leader of the Vice Lords, the same gang the convicted shooters belonged to, authorities said.
Brown determined that Johnson lied at Longstreet’s behest and ruled against the convicted shooters, Cedric Cal and Albert Kirkman, who remain in prison.
“Johnson recanted out of allegiance to the Vice Lords,” Brown said.
After the state’s attorney’s office charged Johnson with perjury, 23 lawyers including Thompson and Mikva wrote to Alvarez saying the prosecution was “contrary to the interests of justice” and a conviction could “chill future witness recantations.”
Robert Warden, retired director of the Center on Wrongful Convictions at Northwestern University Law School, said he knew of more than 16 cases in Cook County in which defendants have been exonerated because of eyewitness recantations. Johnson decided to recant after an investigator for the center tracked him down in Texas, Warden said.
After Johnson was charged with perjury, Judge Dennis Porter presided over a hearing on Feb. 26 in which Gabriel Fuentes, an attorney for Johnson, said his client shouldn’t go to prison — instead arguing that he deserved probation.
Porter became disabled in a car crash and was living in Texas with his wife and two 2-year-old girls, Fuentes told the court.
Although Johnson was previously sentenced to 18 years in prison for attempted murder and armed robbery in 1995, Fuentes said his client’s “gang membership is something in the past. Right now we are here because we don’t see Willie Johnson as a serious, serious threat to the community.”
“We see prison time devastating to this man’s family,” Fuentes told the court, according to a transcript.
But Porter responded: “The thing that is a far greater concern is that somebody would come in years later and try to lie somebody out of the place where they ought to be when they have been convicted for murder.”