1/19/2011

By Henry Klementowicz

This term, the Supreme Court will have to decide whether to grant cert and provide a remedy to James Barrister.  Barrister was convicted of two counts of first degree murder for his part in a shooting of two people in a Chicago housing project in 1989, and was sentenced to life in prison.

The case against him centered on the eye-witness testimony of Deanda Williams, a 12-year-old member of a rival gang. After his trial, however, Williams recanted his testimony, and an appellate court reversed Barrister’s conviction. The State then re-tried Barrister whose subsequent conviction led to this petition.

The second trial revolved around the testimony of Michael Johnson, who had been one of Barrister’s codefendants. At the time, Johnson was convicted of two counts of first degree murder, and sentenced to life in a maximum security prison. The State approached Johnson with a deal: in exchange for testimony against Barrister, the State would ask to have one of his convictions removed, have his sentence shortened to 60 years, and would transfer him to a medium security facility.

At issue in this case are the terms of the deal, which stated that Johnson, to be eligible for the deal, must testify and that “Such truthful testimony shall be consistent with Michael Johnson’s post-arrest statements in [sic] December 28.” Johnson had previously denied any involvement in the shooting, then on December 28, had made statements incriminating himself and Barrister, and then later had claimed that his statements had been coerced.

Barrister claims that Due Process requires his conviction be overturned because the State, in essence, wrote Johnson’s testimony against him.

The Illinois Supreme Court found that Barrister did not have standing to challenge the plea agreement, and in a ruling on the merits said that because the agreement required that Johnson testify truthfully and consistently with his past statements, due process had not been violated.

The dissent pointed out that the state had “no crystal ball” to determine what the truth was, especially in light of Johnson’s conflicting statements. They held, then, that requiring the testimony to be truthful could not save the testimony from the defect that it was scripted by the prosecution.

Surely, we can all agree that the state should not be able to coerce witnesses into telling a particular story. In light of this agreement, the Supreme Court should grant cert to define how that idea applies to these facts.