What Alvarez could (but probably won’t) do to curtail police perjury

Newspaper clipping

A recent article by the Chicago Tribune.

If Cook County State’s Attorney Anita Alvarez already is doing what I am about to propose, I apologize in advance for suggesting that she might be complicit in an attempt to conceal a dirty little secret that in reality is neither little nor secret — although it surely is dirty.

I refer to the incontrovertible fact that police officers lie under oath with impunity — and with full knowledge and tacit support of Alvarez, her predecessors, and myriad present and former assistant state’s attorneys in contravention of their sworn duty to uphold the law.

What I propose is that Alvarez convene a grand jury to investigate Chicago Police Detective Sergeant Brian Johnson’s dubious testimony attributing incriminating statements to a man who was shot and wounded on the city’s south side by a plainclothes police officer in the wee hours of New Year’s Day 2014.

As Steve Schmadeke reported in last Friday’s Chicago Tribune, Detective Sergeant Johnson testified that he twice interviewed Princeton Williamson, the wounded man, during the first two days of 2014 at Advocate Christ Medical Center in Oak Lawn, and that in both interviews Williamson admitted firing a gun into the air moments before he was shot by Wilfredo Ortiz, a plainclothes tactical officer.

Based substantially on Williamson’s purported admissions, he was charged with unlawful use of a weapon — occasioning Detective Sergeant Johnson’s testimony before Cook County Circuit Court Judge James Obbish in February 2015. Although Johnson testified that Williamson had been alert and lucid during both interviews, two attending nurses testified that Williamson was heavily sedated and in such pain that he was in no condition to be interviewed. Moreover, there was no evidence other than Johnson’s testimony that either interview actually even occurred.

As a result, Obbish branded Johnson’s testimony “garbage” — holding it inadmissible and forcing the prosecution to dismiss the case against Williamson.

At that point — more than a year ago now — it would have made sense to convene a grand jury to weigh the relative credibility of Johnson’s and the nurses’ testimony and to vote accordingly on whether to return a true bill charging Johnson with perjury.

Nothing of that sort happened — in keeping with what unquestionably amounts to a de facto policy of Alvarez and her predecessors that essentially immunizes police from perjury prosecutions and results in unjust treatment of defendants like Princeton Williamson.

Not to prejudge what might happen if Alvarez were to belatedly convene the grand jury investigation that she had ample reason to convene in early 2015, but a diligent pursuit of the evidence conceivably could lead not only to perjury charges against Johnson but also to attempted-murder charges against Ortiz, the plainclothes officer who fired 11 shots wounding Williamson and two companion New Year’s revelers less seriously.

Schmadeke’s front-page article on the case quoted Fabio Valentini, Alvarez’s chief of criminal prosecutions, as saying that Judge Obbish’s assessment of the Detective Sergeant Johnson’s testimony was simply “a credibility determination” that did not “necessarily rise” to proof of perjury.

According to the article, Valentini claimed that Assistant State’s Attorney Scott Clark could have corroborated Johnson’s account of the second purported Williamson interview — but Clark was not called to testify before Obbish because at the time it seemed that his testimony was unnecessary.

Again not to prejudge the evidence, but perhaps the real reason that Clark was not called was that he would have been in the untenable position — of either exposing Johnson as a perjurer or committing perjury himself in order to corroborate Johnson’s perjury.

Before a grand jury at this point, the nurses could be expected to reiterate the testimony they presented before Obbish. Johnson well might decline to testify, availing himself to the Fifth Amendment, but nothing more than the nurses’ testimony would be needed for an indictment.

But what might Assistant State’s Attorney Clark have to say? Did he at some point file a false report regarding Johnson’s purported second interview with Williamson? If so, Clark could face charges of obstructing justice, in which case he would be well advised to take the Fifth — which would pose an actual conflict of interest for Anita Alvarez, warranting the appointment of a special prosecutor.

If — it is indeed a big if — an intellectually honest special prosecutor were appointed, the result could be the establishment a meaningful deterrent to the time-honored practice known in the vernacular as “testi-lying.”

At the moment, of course, that is fanciful thinking.

Rob Warden is co-director of Injustice Watch.

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