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It was the type of information that no prosecutor ever wants to hear. Managers in the U.S. attorney’s office discovered a year ago that an expert witness they had relied upon for decades in drug cases had systematically lied on the stand about his background. The news was disturbing, and prosecutors soon devised a complicated plan that is playing itself out in dozens of cases in the District. First things first. Prosecutors charged the witness, the charismatic former D.C. Police Detective Johnny St. Valentine Brown Jr., with perjury. (He pleaded guilty to eight counts in February and was sentenced June 2 to two years in prison.) Then they notified the federal public defender, the Public Defender Service, and 60 private criminal defense lawyers about Brown’s lies — and even placed an ad in the Daily Washington Law Reporter. In responding to the expected flurry of motions to set aside dozens of drug convictions based on Brown’s testimony, the government decided to take a very close look at each case to determine how important Brown was to the government’s proof. Sometimes it chose to fold its cards, and sometimes it tried to make the conviction stick. “It was a very fact-specific response,” says Robert Okun, chief of the Special Proceedings Section in the U.S. attorney’s office and point man for the Brown cases, which now number about 30 and are mostly in U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia. “We looked at what he actually said in each case. Did he lie in each case about his credentials? How important was that to the actual trial? What was the other evidence in the case?” The results have been all over the lot. To date, prosecutors have won five of them, fending off defense attorneys’ bids for new trials. On three other occasions, the U.S. attorney’s office has conceded the issue, one as recently as June 2. And in one contested case last December, United States v. Raymond Jones Jr., then-Senior U.S. District Judge Stanley Sporkin ordered a new trial. Jones had been convicted on one count of possession with intent to distribute heroin, partly because of former detective Brown’s testimony about how heroin is packaged and sold in the District. “Had [the evidence about Brown] been available at the time of Jones’ trial, it is inconceivable that Brown would ever have been offered as a witness by the government,” Sporkin wrote. A few weeks earlier, U.S. District Judge Thomas Hogan went the other way in United States v. Gregory Williams. Hogan noted that Brown’s misrepresentations involved his education and work experience, not his savvy about drug deals, which was the basis of his testimony. The judge found that the jury would still have convicted Williams even if “Detective Brown had not falsely testified that he was a ‘Board certified pharmacist’ and that he receives, maintains, compounds, and dispenses narcotic as well as non-narcotic substances per prescription.” D.C. criminal defense lawyer Billy Ponds, who represents Williams, appealed the decision last month to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit. Ponds is unhappy with the prosecutors’ case-by-case approach. “Hopefully, they will do what’s in the interests of justice and dismiss all of these cases,” says Ponds. “Anytime that you present a witness and the witness is untruthful, it taints the whole process.” ‘THE RIGHT THING TO DO’ Prosecutor Okun says his office concluded that it had to tell defense lawyers about the problems with its star witness. “We decided that was the right thing to do, to make as broad a disclosure as possible,” he says. But Okun adds that a prosecutor has no obligation to dismiss a case or to agree to a new trial when the defendant would not be entitled to a new trial under prevailing law. Under rulings going back to a 7th Circuit decision in 1928, a key test involves whether the jury might have reached a different conclusion if it had known all the facts — here, the fact that Brown was a perjurer. Okun says he expects the number of new-trial motions eventually to top 100. “We are getting motions filed in cases from the early 1980s,” he says. Okun says that although claims of newly discovered evidence must be filed within three years after a conviction, motions to vacate a sentence under a different federal law are proper up to a year after the defense attorney learns of new evidence to support the claim. Brown testified in thousands of cases, mostly for the government, for about 20 years. Prosecutors have said he appears to have perjured himself for at least 16 years. Ironically, several sources point out that many convictions probably can’t be challenged since defense attorneys frequently stipulated to Brown’s credentials, so the topic never came up on the stand. If Brown didn’t lie in a specific case, the conviction is probably unassailable. Brown’s perjury came out last summer in a negligence case filed by Terry Butera, the mother of Eric Butera, a police informant who was killed in 1997 while trying to help D.C. police solve the Starbucks triple-murder. Brown was set to be the city’s expert witness, but Peter Grenier of D.C.’s Bode & Beckman discovered the lies. Senior U.S. District Judge June Green refused to let the city name a new expert, and a jury awarded Butera $98 million, now on appeal. The U.S. attorney’s strategy — prosecuting Brown for perjury while trying to minimize the impact of his lies on past cases — has had another notable result. Amy Jeffress, the assistant U.S. attorney who prosecuted Brown, wrote in court papers May 24 before U.S. District Judge Henry Kennedy Jr., “The harm that the defendant’s behavior has caused can hardly be measured. First, by lying repeatedly about his credentials, the defendant has undermined public confidence in police witnesses. … Other officers will suffer from the mistrust that the defendant’s conduct will engender in the community and in potential jurors.” Weeks later, Okun tried to downplay the importance of Brown’s lies. In a brief opposing a new trial before Senior U.S. District Judge Thomas Flannery, he wrote, “Because Detective Brown’s testimony was based on his personal experience and training and not his background as a ‘pharmacist,’ the opinions he offered at trial were not materially undermined by his lack of a pharmacology degree.”

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