CHICAGO (CN) – An Illinois federal prosecutor knowingly relied on the false testimony of a witness in order to win a guilty verdict during a five-week drug conspiracy trial, the 7th Circuit found.
The three-judge panel affirmed district Judge Joan Lefkow’s grant of a new trial to four individuals convicted of various drug crimes, including overarching conspiracy which carries a twenty year minimum sentence.
Video surveillance, garbage pulls, and controlled buys in the now-razed Cabrini Green public housing project led to the indictment of fifteen individuals for cocaine charges, including overarching conspiracy. Only five pled not guilty. Rondell Freeman, Brian Wilbourn, Daniel Hill and Adam Sanders were convicted.
Prosecutors alleged that the drug ring was operated by a street gang called the Gangster Disciples under Freeman’s leadership. Freeman supposedly purchased over one kilogram of cocaine per week which was turned into crack.
The defendants admitted to being low-level drug dealers, but denied any ties to Freeman.
Testimony of three cooperating witnesses, including a former crack bagger Seneca Williams, allowed the prosecution to paint a picture of an organized drug ring. In exchange for a five year prison sentence, Williams outlined the details of the operation.
His testimony placed Freeman, Wilbourn, Hill, and Sanders at a drug house known as “the penthouse” in 2003. However, Wilbourn was incarcerated from 2002 to 2005.
Wilbourn’s attorney sent prosecutors a letter pointing out the contradiction. But prosecutors allowed Williams to testify anyway, encouraging him to specifically detail Wilbourn’s participation in Freeman’s operation.
When the defense council pointed out the impossibility of Williams’s testimony, the government objected saying, “That’s not true,” in the presence of the jury.
It was a full twelve days after Williams had taken the stand before the government acknowledged that Wilbourn was in prison in 2003. However, the government still relied on Williams’s testimony during closing arguments, arguing that he had not lied but was merely imprecise about the dates. The prosecution’s own evidence showed that the penthouse was only used in 2003.
This strategy could have tainted the jury’s verdict, the 7th Circuit determined.
Judge Daniel Manion wrote, “When the government obtains a conviction through the knowing use of false testimony, it violates a defendant’s due process rights.”
Assistant U.S. Attorney Rachel Cannon was singled out for prosecutorial misconduct. No disciplinary action has been taken.
“Indeed, even if the prosecutor’s statements were the product of gross negligence, rather than an intentional act, we fully agree with the district court that in a case like this, the harm was not cured – instead it left an indelible impression on the jury,” Manion wrote.
Despite the favorable conspiracy ruling, the group still faces sentencing for the other drug charges.