Questioning Eyewitness Testimony

April 18, 2008

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A man named Alton Logan, who's serving a life sentence in Stateville prison, became something more than a long-forgotten convict four months ago.  That's when two retired public defenders said they were told decades ago that Logan is innocent.  They said their client, cop-killer Andrew Wilson, told them he'd committed the murder that Logan is serving time for.  Their testimony will be center-stage at a court hearing today. Meanwhile, reporter John Conroy talked with a detective instrumental in getting Logan convicted, who says he has second thoughts about the value of the eyewitness testimony that brought about Logan's conviction.

Seven years after Alton Logan was sentenced to natural life for killing a security guard in a South Side MacDonald's, the two detectives who sealed his conviction with eyewitness testimony discussed the case. Both had worked in the Chicago Police Department's Area Two headquarters, under now notorious Commander Jon Burge. Both had left the force.

Charles Grunhard had retired and was dying of cancer. Tom Bennett graduated from law school, worked as a prosecutor and was then working as a defense lawyer. When he heard his former partner was near death, he flew to Arkansas to visit him.

BENNETT: Charlie's wife says, 'Doctor says not to drink.' But hey, when you're on the fast slope you can drink anything you want.

CONROY: So what did he tell you about the Logan case?

BENNETT: He told me that Jon Burge had told him we had arrested the wrong guy.

As Bennett recounted the conversation in an affidavit, his former partner said Burge believed that the right guy was Andrew Wilson. In our conversation, Bennett said he pushed Grunhard for more information.

CONROY: And you said, 'How does Jon know?'

BENNETT: He said, 'He has sources or something,' you know.

Bennett had a stroke in 1997 that has left his speech a little slurred, but he still works as a defense attorney. He says, in spite of that tavern conversation, and the other information that's come out in recent months, he doesn't feel responsible for a wrongful conviction.

BENNETT: Hey, I didn't ID him in the lineup. Two independent witnesses did. Eyewitness testimony is not all that good.

Grunhard died in 1990. Burge, who now lives in Florida, was fired in 1993 over allegations that he tortured Andrew Wilson. His attorney did not return calls asking for comment.

STAINTHORP: In my view, eyewitness evidence should never, ever be a sole basis for conviction.

That's defense attorney John Stainthorp, who's been involved in hundreds of criminal defense and civil rights cases since 1980. Stainthorp was one of Andrew Wilson's attorneys in his successful suit against Burge and the police department for torture.

The Logan case, Stainthorp says:

STAINTHORP: Serves to reinforce the overwhelming evidence that we are seeing that eyewitness evidence is extremely unreliable. So, we have a lot of cases where someone says, 'I'll never forget that face. Absolutely. No question at all.' And they are absolutely dead wrong.

Stainthorp says in the future convictions should not rest on eyewitness testimony alone.

STAINTHORP: I haven't the slightest doubt that there are hundreds if not thousands of people in prison in Illinois, who are there who are innocent and who have been falsely convicted based on eyewitness identification.

That larger question isn't directly on the table in court this morning. But the admissibility of testimony from a number of people is. Asked what he thinks should happen now in Alton Logan's case, former detective Tom Bennett says:

BENNETT: I feel sorry for the guy. Twenty-six years is a long time to spend for something you DID. Let him go.

The hearing before Judge James Schreier is scheduled to begin later this morning.