Tag Archives: Rob Warden

Cook County State’s Attorney Urged to Reconsider Indicting Witness Who Recanted

In an op-ed piece (here) in the Chicago Sun-Times, Rob Warden, executive director of the Center on Wrongful Convictions at Northwestern University School of Law, is urging Cook County (IL) State’s Attorney Anita Alvarez to reconsider her decision to seek to indict on a perjury charge Willie Johnson, after he recanted his 1994 testimony, which led to the conviction and life sentencing of the Center’s client, Cedric Cal.

Johnson was the sole survivor of a gang-related drive-by shooting that killed two of his friends. He was wounded nine times but survived and named Cal and Albert Kirkman as the shooters. In recanting his testimony seventeen years later in 2011, Johnson said that he knew all along that the two he fingered were not the perpetrators. He claimed that if he had identified the actual shooters back in 1994, he would have put himself and his family in danger. Continue reading

Wrongful Convictions Symposium in Chicago will Honor Rob Warden

The Center on Wrongful Convictions at Northwestern School of Law will recognize its co-founder and longtime executive director Rob Warden as a “Champion of Justice,” at a Wrongful Convictions Symposium on May 9, 2014. The Symposium—to be held at Thorne Auditorium from 1:30 to 6:30 p.m.— is described as “a celebratory event to honor Rob Warden’s quest to free the innocent.” It is free and open to the public.

Barry Scheck, Co-Founder of the Innocence Project, will be the keynote speaker. The program will also include two panel discussions and a conversation with Warden and Eric Zorn, columnist for the Chicago Tribune. A reception will immediately follow.

Rob Warden, recipient of more than fifty journalism awards, is one of the leading pioneers in exposing the conviction of the innocent. He has dedicated much of his career to investigative journalism focused on cases of claimed injustice. His work has not only prompted the freeing of the wrongfully convicted, but also the expansion of awareness of the scope of conviction error. He has increased our understanding of the causes of and contributors to miscarriages of justice, and he has been at the forefront of exposing the risk of error in death penalty cases.

Lawrence Marshall, a former Northwestern law professor who co-founded the Center on Wrongful Convictions with Warden in 1999, credits Warden with contributing to the elimination of the death penalty in Illinois. At a conference in 1998, Warden helped highlight more than two-dozen persons who had been freed from death row. This sobering display of miscarriages in death penalty cases influenced then-Governor George Ryan in his decision to place a moratorium on the Illinois death penalty in 2000. It was abolished in the state in 2011.

Read more on Warden here, here, here, and here.

According to Dan Hinkel’s article in the Chicago Tribune (here), Warden, 73, has no intention of leaving the work of researching, writing, and advocating for an improved criminal justice system. The seemingly tireless journalist, author, and advocate intends to be a force in eliminating the death penalty nationwide.

Mr. Warden’s work has had an inestimable impact on the lives of those freed from prison after wrongful conviction and on our understanding of how the criminal justice system can come closer to its promise of fair and accurate justice for all. The upcoming symposium will provide an opportunity to celebrate and thank an inspiring original, an accomplished writer and advocate, a true American hero.

Rob Warden provides a must-read opinion on recantations

If you have ever wondered why courts often believe original witness testimony over a recantation and thereby deny a new trial, read Rob Warden’s insightful opinion piece on recantations published in the Chicago Sun-Times (here).

Not only does Warden explain why Illinois courts have often sided with original testimony, but he also provides ample evidence that this common confidence in an original statement has been upended by numerous cases in which the recantation proved to be the truth.

Warden, Executive Director of the Center on Wrongful Convictions at Northwestern Law, provides the foundation for erroneous confidence in original testimony, at least in Illinois. An Illinois Supreme Court decision eighty-two years ago included this statement: “Recanting testimony is regarded as very unreliable, and a court will usually deny a new trial based on that ground where it is not satisfied that such testimony is true.”

Warden points out that the exoneration of Gary Dotson—often referenced as the first DNA-proven exoneration—could have been expedited by four years if Illinois courts had believed the recantation of Dotson’s accuser.

Citing data from the National Registry of Exonerations, he notes, “Since the Dotson case, recantations in 26 other Illinois cases similarly have proved true — often more belatedly than in the Dotson case…The longest delay occurred in the Ford Heights Four case, in which authorities ignored the key accuser’s recantation for 18 years — from June 1978 until DNA proved it truthful in June 1996.”

Warden writes that the Illinois Supreme Court now has two cases before it that provide opportunity to correct now-debunked confidence in original testimony over recantation, but even more important, to remind judges that whether the recantation is the truth or not, is not even the question before them. (Again, read Warden’s opinion piece.)

The National Registry of Exonerations has issued preliminary findings on an ongoing study of recantations (here) that should dispel the myth of the sanctity of original testimony everywhere.

This report indicates that “25% of exonerations include recantations by prosecution witnesses or victims; 82% of these recantations occur in murder and child sex abuse cases. In murder cases, the recanters are usually ‘eyewitnesses’ who were pressured by law enforcement to give false testimony. In child sex abuse cases, most are ‘victims’ who were pressured by family members or child welfare investigators to accuse the defendants of crimes that never happened.”

I believe that logic also defies the myth that original testimony should always be considered more reliable than a recantation…and supports the notion that when a significant witness recants, the courts should take seriously the question of whether or not the recantation undermines confidence in the verdict.

Here’s my logic: In which situation is a person more incentivized to lie? The original testimony or when recanting?

Many circumstances prompt a suspect, inmate, or person in a compromised position to lie. In cases in which a recantation has turned out to be the truth, the witness often had a compelling reason for the original lie.

Perhaps the crime never happened but the “victim” lied as a cover-up for personal behavior that might cause shame, embarrassment, or sanctions, as in the Dotson and other similar cases. Perhaps false testimony came from a person who was originally a suspect in the crime, but deflected arrest or achieved a lesser charge and sentence by fingering another. Perhaps an inmate capitalized on an opportunity to win consideration in exchange for providing testimony that helped make a case.

The incentives to recant are often less apparent. Recanting requires publicly admitting that you were either mistaken or you lied and perjured yourself. This could invite criminal charges or a civil law suit.

While it is not always clear why a witness recants, many who recant say that they have been motivated by conscience or a desire to set the record straight, to right a wrong that has been very costly to another, or to finally restore truth.

These, of course, are also worthy motivations for our courts.

Changes at Center on Wrongful Convictions Reveal the Power of a Few

As reported in the Chicago Tribune today (here) and in a release from Northwestern University Law School, Rob Warden, co-founder and executive director of the Center on Wrongful Convictions at Northwestern Law will retire at the end of the academic year. He has served fifteen years leading the Center’s pioneering efforts. With the dedicated assistance of others, he and the Center on Wrongful Convictions have freed the innocent and have been influential in prompting a staggering list of policy reforms. Continue reading

Understanding the Unthinkable: False Confession

According to Rob Warden, of 70 wrongful convictions in Cook County, Illinois, between 1986 and 2011, a false confession was involved in more than half, including both those who falsely confessed to a crime they did not commit and those implicated by another person’s false confession. Warden should know. Co-founder and executive director of the Center on Wrongful Convictions at Northwestern Law, he’s an award-winning legal affairs journalist, whose efforts to expose official misconduct—physical abuse in interrogations in Illinois—resulted in a more complete understanding of the phenomenon of false confession.

Warden’s 11-minute TEDx video (here) is a primer on why false confessions occur and how the criminal justice system can reduce them.

Warden notes that physical torture does not account for the majority of false confessions today. Most are the result of psychological pressures that could prompt many reading this article to confess to a crime not committed. Continue reading

Anniversary of Troy Davis Execution Prompts Discourse

Tomorrow, September 21, is the one-year anniversary of the controversial execution of Troy Davis in Georgia. (See report from a year ago here.) Since 1989 DNA has revealed that wrongful conviction—the conviction of a person totally innocent of the crime—does happen, and more frequently than most Americans believe. That reality begs the question of whether or not an innocent person has been executed in the United States. Troy Davis’s execution elevated this question Continue reading

Jeffrey MacDonald Case: Fatal Vision or Tunnel Vision?

The case of Jeffrey MacDonald, 68, the former Green Beret captain and medical doctor who was convicted of the 1970 murders of his wife and daughters, is getting some important second looks.

See earlier references to the case on the wrongful convictions blog by Martin Yant (here) and Phil Locke (here).

MacDonald, who has now served 30 years in prison, has always claimed innocence. Many know the case through Joe McGinness’s book “Fatal Vision.” A new Continue reading