By Carlos Sadovi
A federal appeals court agreed with a lower court that federal prosecutors knew that a star witness during a five-week drug conspiracy trial was lying when he took the stand in a trial in which four people were convicted.
The ruling issued Friday by the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals opens the door for a new trial.
“When the government obtains a conviction through the knowing use of false testimony, it violates a defendant’s due process rights,” Appellate Court Judge Daniel A. Manion wrote for the three-member court.
The 2009 trial focused on a drug ring operated by the Gangster Disciples street gang. In 2007, prosecutors charged Rondell Freeman, Brian Wilbourn, Daniel Hill and Adam Sanders as well as 12 others. At the time, prosecutors said they were attacking the gang’s drug dealing at the Cabrini-Green public housing development.
But after the five-week trial concluded in 2009, U.S. District Judge Joan H. Lefkow ordered a new trial for the men on some counts, including a key conspiracy charge that carried a sentence of 20 years to life. But Lefkow refused to dismiss multiple other counts, meaning each still faces sentencing for those convictions.
According to the ruling written by Manion, the court agreed with Lefkow’s ruling that the prosecution’s star witness, Seneca Williams, had lied on the stand and that the prosecutors knowingly put him on the stand even when they knew he was lying.
Lefkow described Williams — who received a 5-year sentence in exchange for his testimony — as a key witness for prosecutors because he helped prove the elements of the conspiracy charge against the four defendants and his false testimony was responsible for jurors finding the four guilty on drug conspiracy charges.
The appellate court agreed that prosecutors erred by relying on the testimony.
The court also agreed that Williams’ testimony was key, because he added key information about the enterprise and noted that the headquarters for the drug enterprise had moved to a top floor apartment known as the “penthouse” in the housing complex. Manion wrote: “Williams testimony … provided some of the most detailed evidence of Freeman’s operation and the other defendants’ role in it.”
Before the trial, Wilbourn’s lawyer Leonard Goodman read Williams’ grand jury testimony and sent prosecutors a letter noting that Wilbourn had been incarcerated during the time Williams said Wilbourn was involved in the conspiracy. At one point during the trial, Goodman tried to cross-examine Williams about Wilbourn being in prison at the time.
But, as the appellate court noted, prosecutors objected in front of the jury saying, “That’s not true.” But later, near the end of the trial, prosecutors stipulated in court that Wilbourn had indeed been incarcerated at the time for unrelated charges.
The appellate court noted that while prosecutors stipulated to Wilbourn’s imprisonment at the time, they still relied on Williams’ testimony during closing arguments.
“That meant the government knew Williams’ testimony was false. Yet despite first using and then admitting that Williams’ testimony was false, the government relied on it,” according to the ruling.
Prosecutors defended their actions at the time and noted that Williams had not lied on the stand but rather was “imprecise or mildly mistaken about the dates on which some events occurred.”
During her ruling at the time, Lefkow singled out Assistant U.S. Atty. Rachel Cannon for her conduct at the trial and said the actions constituted prosecutorial misconduct.
“The governing principle is simply that the prosecutor may not knowingly use false testimony … this includes ‘half-truths’ and vague statements that could be true in a limited, literal sense but give a false impression to the jury,” according to the appellate court ruling.
In a statement issued on Friday, U.S. Attorney Patrick J. Fitzgerald said that while paying close attention to the ruling, his office believes prosecutors acted properly. Cannon is still employed by the office, according to a spokesman.
“We respectfully disagree with [the] decision and have complete confidence in the ethics and good faith of the trial lawyers in this case. We are reviewing the opinion to determine how to proceed,” Fitzgerald said.
In an interview, Goodman applauded the appellate court ruling and said that his client had been willing to admit to being a low-level drug dealer but was never involved in a conspiracy. The conspiracy conviction alone could have had him spending a minimum of 20 years in prison under mandatory minimum sentencing guidelines.
Because of the mandatory sentence guidelines, many cooperating witnesses will lie to get themselves shorter sentences, Goodman said.
“I hope it will have some good effects because many of these drug conspiracy cases are based on perjury,” he said. “In this case we actually caught a witness lying.”
Original article can be found on the Chicago Tribune website Here