Recanting witnesses plague Savannah courts

Problem results in reduced number of pleas, sentences in murder cases

SAVANNAH, Ga. -- For the second time in less than a month, recalcitrant witnesses forced prosecutors Thursday to reduce a murder charge in exchange for lighter sentences in a local slaying.


Tavone Miguel Reddick, now 21, pleaded guilty to a reduced charge of voluntary manslaughter in the 2007 slaying of 15-year-old Beach High School student Tre' Aquil Walker.

In return prosecutors were forced to settle for a sentence of 15 years in prison with three years, eight months and eight days credit for time he has spent in jail awaiting trial to serve. The remaining time will be served on probation.

Assistant District Attorney Frank Pennington said police identified three witnesses who identified Reddick as the shooter, but since the indictment have "significantly" recanted their testimony.

That left the state with "significant hurdles to overcome" had the case gone to trial, Pennington said, adding the decision to offer a negotiated plea was based in large part on those recantations.

Chatham County Superior Court Judge Michael Karpf was clearly not pleased and only "reluctantly" accepted the negotiated plea-sentence.

"But this recanting business is getting eerily out of control," Karpf said. "Needless to say, I don't like it and I think that's clear."

He called his case similar to one before fellow Superior Court Judge Louisa Abbot on June 3 when she criticized a "very lenient sentence" of
17 months to serve of a 20-year sentence for Sir Christopher Tremble in the Jan. 6, 2009, slaying of Harold Boney Jr.

The case "raise(d) very troubling issues about the lack of cooperation which is an increasing problem in this county where witnesses recant, change their stories and fail to appear in court," Abbot said.

In that case, she blamed the state's failure to proceed to trial on the refusal of witnesses to come to court and testify, calling it "disturbing to the court."

Abbot said Thursday the problem seems to be getting worse.

"All too often I hear cases can't move forward because police can't complete their investigations because witnesses are uncooperative or unwilling to come forward," she said.

She was uncertain whether that results from witnesses being "afraid or just don't want to cooperate with law enforcement."

"Something needs to be done about it."


Karpf responds sharply

Karpf, usually a mild-mannered jurist, was not kind in his assessment of the case before him Thursday.

"It certainly does not send the right message out to the community," he said adding the message is that "justice does not get served in the courthouse (but) out on the street."

Reddick faced a possible sentence of life plus five years in prison had he been convicted at trial, Karpf said.

Part of Reddick's probation is that he have no contact with a list of prosecution witnesses, including several of those who have since recanted.

Karpf questioned why those who recant should get state-brokered protection and also questioned why when people lie to police they are not prosecuted.

"I don't think they ought to get away with it," Karpf said.

He noted the evidentiary issues facing prosecutions, adding, "Mr. Pennington, I'm not blaming you."

Like Abbot, Karpf admonished Reddick not to return before him in the case, promising prison time if he did.

Walker was shot and killed from a passing SUV Oct. 13, 2007, at 51st and Stevens streets after an ongoing dispute over $100 in counterfeit money.

Reddick, represented by attorney Michael Schiavone, contended he was in South Carolina with his father at the time of the shooting.


DA urges cooperation

District Attorney Larry Chisolm said Thursday the two cases cited "are an exception to recent conviction trends we have experienced in the office."

"When witnesses do not cooperate, it does affect our ability to get the more serious sentences in the case or the ability of police to arrest a suspect at all," he said.

He said his office stands ready "when we have sufficient evidence, to prosecute any parties that have intentionally hampered the prosecution."

He urged citizens to step up to the plate and cooperate with police.

"Lastly, I cannot stress the importance of our citizens being involved in prosecuting individuals who have committed felonies in our communities."