Judge grants new hearing for man twice found guilty in 1989 double-murder

A key witness against James Bannister admitted lying on the stand in second trial.

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James Bannister has twice been convicted of a 1989 murder he said he didn’t commit. A judge will hear evidence that a key witness recanted in a videotaped confession.

Illinois Department of Corrections

A Cook County judge has given new life to a bid for exoneration by James Bannister, who has twice been convicted for a 1989 double-murder near the Illinois Institute of Technology, setting the stage for a hearing that could see the former head of the state’s attorney’s wrongful conviction unit on the witness stand.

Bannister was sentenced to life in prison for the killing of Dan Williams and Thomas Kaufman, and has served about 20 years so far.

A band of gang rivals chased down and shot Williams near the Stateway Gardens housing projects. Kaufman, a security guard working inside a building on the IIT campus, was killed by a stray bullet intended for Williams.

Judge Patrick Coughlin on Monday called for an evidentiary hearing to delve deeper into a videotaped admission from a key witness in the second trial, as well as allegations that prosecutors didn’t share information about another witness who also had recanted.

Bannister, his face covered by a surgical mask as he sat beside his lawyers and co-defendant Eric Smith, showed little emotion as Coughlin read a lengthy ruling from the bench. Smith also will make his case for another trial. The date for the hearing has not been set.

In the years between his 1990 trial and 2004 re-trial, nearly every witness who had identified Bannister as one of the shooters has recanted that testimony. The judge in the bench trial, James Schreier, had said he disagreed with the jury’s guilty verdict in the original trial — with the judge even going so far as to say that if Bannister had opted for a bench trial, he would’ve been acquitted. The judge released Bannister on $10,000 bond ahead of the re-trial.

But prosecutors added two new witnesses for the second trial, including a former co-defendant who struck a sweetheart plea deal to testify against Bannister. Michael Johnson was serving a life sentence for the double-murder at the notorious Tamms (Ill.) Correctional Center, a now-closed super-max penitentiary near the state’s southern tip. He was approached by prosecutors and offered a 60-year sentence — translating to 30 years with good behavior — and a transfer out of Tamms if he took the stand against Bannister. The judge found Johnson’s testimony compelling, and Bannister once again was sent to prison for life.

But Johnson, who has already completed that sentence, gave an “off-the-record” interview with an investigator hired by Bannister’s court-appointed attorney. In it, Johnson confessed he had lied to get out of Tamms. Johnson later agreed to a videotaped interview with Mark Rotert, who at the time was the head of the state’s attorney’s Conviction Integrity Unit. Rotert, who granted Johnson immunity to talk specifically about his testimony in Bannister’s case, asked Johnson if he lied on the witness stand.

“James didn’t have anything to do with that case. I’m sorry I put that guy in that case,” Johnson said in an excerpt from the video played for Coughlin. “I (was) trying to get out from under a life sentence and get out of Tamms.”

After Monday’s hearing, Bannister’s lawyer, Jennifer Blagg, would not rule out calling Rotert to testify.

“We’re excited for James to be able to present the evidence that show’s he’s innocent,” Blagg said. “Everyone in this case who testified against James was incentivized in some way. Now, Michael Johnson, who has no incentive to lie or exonerate James, says (Bannister) wasn’t there.”

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