Justice Price (NYLJ/Rick Kopstein)
A crucial murder case witness who said she lied at trial two decades ago and recently recanted her testimony has failed to persuade a Bronx judge to vacate the conviction.
Supreme Court Justice Richard Lee Price (See Profile) suggested that the witness, who said she lied in 1993, was actually telling the truth then, and that her 2013 recantation is “absurd.”
“It is, of course, understandable that over time a person’s memory will deteriorate such that what was certain then is in doubt today,” Price wrote in People v. Watson, 78-6-1991. “A memory can do many things with the passage of time; improving is not one of them.”
The witness, a retired New York City corrections officer named Christine Holloway, contends that her testimony in the October 1991 homicide was false and partly the result of pressure from law enforcement officials. But Price found it more likely that Holloway’s recantation was the product of pressure from a private investigator hired by the defense and a dubious “six-month therapeutic path of self-realization.”
Shane Watson, the defendant, was convicted based largely on Holloway’s testimony of shooting and killing his victim on Schieffelin Avenue. There was no physical evidence against Watson, and Holloway provided the most substantive eyewitness testimony, which was supported by observations from two sisters who viewed portions of the incident from a distance and corroborated Holloway’s statement.
Holloway, who was driving in the vicinity at the time of the crime, testified that she clearly saw the defendant and picked him out of a photo array and a lineup. Watson was convicted of second-degree murder and sentenced to a 20-year-to-life prison term.
In 2012, a private investigator in Georgia tracked Holloway to her home in Atlanta. After meeting him and Watson’s attorney, Robert Boyle of Manhattan, she signed an affidavit recanting her trial testimony.
Shortly after, the Bronx District Attorney’s office contacted Holloway and arranged for her travel to New York City, where she met with prosecutors to discuss her recantation. Subsequently, Holloway underwent several months of therapy to deal with her trial testimony, according to court records.
Holloway ultimately testified at a hearing before Price last year that she had “long been haunted and disturbed about what happened at the trial.”
She testified that she had told police back in the early 1990s that she could not identify the shooter, but said they told her not to worry about it. She said the investigators showed her a photograph of the defendant, told her to identify him and stick with her story throughout the trial.
Holloway also said that the “scary” private investigator haunted her, repeatedly showing up in her driveway, “smooth talk[ed]” her and made her feel as though she had to comply with his request for a recantation.
Price said Holloway’s assertion that she began “to doubt things” after the investigator approached her belied her claim that she had always been bothered by her testimony and “always knew there was something wrong” with the photo arrays.
“Perhaps most disturbing, was Ms. Holloway’s willingness to boldly notify the world that she … lied at trial,” Price wrote. “Notwithstanding that such testimony is baffling, given that at trial she testified to having observed the defendant’s face with her vehicle headlights, it is nothing short of contemptuous if true.”
If true, Price said, it is “unconscionable” that Holloway wouldn’t revisit her false testimony for 20 years, until approached by defense investigators.
“Worse is that if what she said at trial was the truth, which this court believes, she ostensibly became convinced to peddle a concocted story after having been pressured to do so by defense investigators, and an encounter with defendant’s family,” Price wrote.
The judge also rejected an ineffective assistance claim alleging that the trial attorney, Paul Markstein, was negligent in failing to pursue an alibi defense and in eliciting testimony from the sisters identifying the defendant.
Although Price said the defense strategy, which largely amounted to challenging the identification of his client, was “bold,” it was apparently the considered tactic of an experienced attorney. The judge said that even though the Watson matter was Markstein’s first and only murder case, the attorney had tried 15 cases before, including several involving shootings based on eyewitness identifications.
“Mr. Markstein did not simply pull this strategy out of Merlin’s Magic Hat; rather, it was based upon his years as a criminal defense practitioner,” Price wrote in his 50-page opinion.
Boyle, a solo practitioner, said he was disappointed in the decision and will seek leave to the Appellate Division, First Department. He was assisted by Glenn Garber and Rebecca Freedman of The Exoneration Initiative in Manhattan.
Assistant District Attorneys Justin Braun, Pishoy Yacoub and Rebecca Johannesen represented the prosecution.