Several prominent lawyers and jurists are asking Cook County State's Attorney Anita Alvarez to drop perjury charges against a witness who claims he lied when he helped secure convictions at a murder trial 20 years ago.
In a letter to Alvarez, the judges and prosecutors argue that prosecuting 42-year-old Willie Johnson could dissuade others who gave false testimony from recanting.
Among those who signed the letter were former U.S. attorneys Dan Webb and Jim Thompson, who is also a former Illinois 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 and author Scott Turow.
At a 1994 trial, Johnson identified two men as gunmen in a fatal shooting. In 2011, he told a judge he'd lied. But after the judge said he didn't believe Johnson did really lie, Alvarez charged him.
Johnson's attorney, Steve Greenberg, says recanting witnesses who hurt a state case are more likely to be charged with perjury than witnesses who lie to help the state.
"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 for free.
Cook County state's attorney spokeswoman Sally Daly told the Chicago Sun-Times 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."
However, in an April 24 letter, 23 attorneys said they believe the prosecution of Johnson is not in the interest 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.
Although the letter signers acknowledge Johnson must have been lying either at the 1994 trial or in the 2011 post-conviction hearing, they said perjury charges should be pursued only when prosecutors believe they can prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the recantation was false.