Testilying – Swearing to tell a lie

Changing stories told on the stand after convictions is so common, court watchers have a name for it. The challenge is what to believe, and when.

Excerpt from Philadelphia Inquirer/Philly.com article by Emilie Lounsberry & Michaelle Bond

It was a giant step for Deirdre Jones to take the witness stand that day in 2012. She had returned to a Philadelphia courtroom to testify about a 1991 murder near Rittenhouse Square. Her first time on the stand, she said, haunted her for almost two decades.

Jones had been the star witness in the 1993 trial of Chester Hollman III, charged with killing a University of Pennsylvania student. Hollman, a 21-year-old with no criminal history, had been picked up minutes after the murder and blocks from the scene.

Detectives found no physical evidence tying him to the crime. So Jones’ testimony — that she had been riding with Hollman and another man in an SUV when they got out and she heard a gunshot — almost certainly cemented his conviction and life prison sentence.

But when Hollman’s appeals lawyers called her back to the witness stand 19 years later, Jones offered a different account.

Choking up, Jones swore she had lied at trial, that she and Hollman had been driving alone that night and he had no role in the killing of the victim, Tae-Jung Ho. Jones said detectives coerced her into implicating Hollman.

Helping to lock him up, she said, stoked years of depression.

“I just thought it was time for me to come out and to tell the truth,” Jones, then a 40-year-old hospital worker, testified in January 2012. “Maybe some of my depression would go away.”

“I tried 3 murder cases in the last year, and witness credibility played a huge role in the hung juries reached in all of them. All 3 cases have since plead to lesser charges and much lower sentences than the 30 minimum for Murder, including 6 and 4 years recently.”

– NJ Criminal Defense Attorney Tim Farrow

The case illustrates a stark reality of the criminal justice system: People lie. They lie to stay out of jail, to get out of jail, to curry favor with cops. And police sometimes lie, too. It’s so common, so understood within the court system, that regulars have a name for it: Testilying — when officers lie to buttress a weak case, or when a defendant lies in hopes of winning an acquittal.

In the end, Philadelphia Common Pleas Judge Gwendolyn N. Bright followed a long line of judges who reject witness recantations as unreliable. She did not believe Jones’ new testimony and denied Hollman’s motion to reopen his case.

Jones wasn’t the first witness to claim to have lied at the trial. A decade before she came forward, Andre Dawkins — the only other person to place Hollman at the murder scene — swore police also had pressured him to falsely implicate Hollman.

The twists and turns of the case show how difficult it is to figure out who is lying — and when.

“If we attempted to prosecute every witness that perjures themselves, it would be a completely unworkable and impossible situation.”

Jennifer Creed Selber, former chief of the District Attorney’s Office’s homicide unit

If Jones testified truthfully in 1993 but lied on the stand five years ago, she risked a perjury charge. If her more recent testimony was true, then David Baker, the former Philadelphia detective who interviewed her after the murder, lied in 2012 when, under oath, he flatly denied her accusations.

Untangling who is lying in criminal cases can be “absolutely daunting,” said lawyer Richard L. Scheff, who recalled wrestling with the issue when he was a federal prosecutor. “There can be any number of reasons why people change their statements.”

Scientific advances in crime solving — especially DNA testing — have freed the wrongfully convicted and proven guilt. Almost as a rule, experts say, courts don’t like to reopen old cases without compelling scientific evidence.

Read the full article at Philly.com – http://www.philly.com/philly/news/recantation-exoneration-lying-witnesses-Philadelphia-trial-testilying.html

Tim Farrow, of Dash Farrow, LLP, is an experienced criminal defense attorney and former prosecutor who handles criminal defense matters of any kind.  When you need experienced, focused, and responsive legal help, call Dash Farrow, LLP at 856-235-8300 or Contact Us Here. We serve individuals and businesses throughout Burlington and Camden County, and all of South Jersey.

CategoryCriminal Law