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Bribe claim cannot be proven, FDLE says

The man, who recanted and allowed a death row inmate to go free, said he was paid $120.

DAVID KARP
Published May 1, 2003

TAMPA - Flemmie Birkins, a drug user with a long criminal record, appeared in court in 2001 and admitted he had lied under oath in an old capital murder case.

After Birkins and another witness changed their testimony in 2001, the case became so weak that the state released convicted killer Rudolph Holton from Florida's death row after 16 years.

But now that Holton is free, Birkins says he had another motive for testifying.

He wanted $120.

Birkins has told Florida Department of Law Enforcement agents that investigators for Holton's defense team gave him $120 to change his testimony. He said they suggested that Birkins, a homeless man, could use the money to leave town.

The FDLE investigators said in a report released Wednesday that they could not corroborate the allegations.

Holton's defense adamantly denies it did anything improper.

"It's made up. It ain't true. It didn't happen," said Martin McClain, a lawyer who worked on Holton's case. "These guys are lying. They have lied in the past. They lie when it is convenient."

Birkins' testimony could now bring him a five-year prison term.

Wednesday, Hillsborough State Attorney Mark Ober opened an investigation into whether Birkins and another witness committed perjury in the case.

The second witness, Johnny Lee Newsome, known as "Georgia Boy," also changed his testimony in the 1986 murder case.

In January, Gov. Jeb Bush ordered an FDLE investigation after Holton became the 24th person released from the state's death row.

The governor said he wanted to know why the two witnesses had changed their stories.

Critics considered it a political maneuver by Bush to discredit the Capital Collateral Regional Counsels, a state agency that represented Holton and most death row inmates.

Bush has proposed eliminating the agency and hiring private attorneys to represent the condemned. The FDLE report recommends that Bush order an audit of the agency because of an "apparent lack of accountability."

Because of protected attorney-client privilege, FDLE agents could not find out how much money and time the agency spent on Holton's case.

"Gov. Bush resents the fact that (the agency) is accountable to Rudolph Holton and not to him," McClain said.

A spokeswoman for the governor did not return a call for comment.

In January, Bush criticized how long it took to find the new evidence in Holton's case. He called the recantations an "incredible reversal of testimony."

Prosecutors released Holton in January because they had little evidence to convict him for a 16-year-old crime. The Florida Supreme Court had overturned Holton's conviction because of the recanted testimony, withheld evidence and new DNA evidence.

In 1986, Birkins and Newsome had been key witnesses against Holton, a burglar with a drug habit.

Police accused Holton of raping and strangling Katrina Graddy, a 17-year-old prostitute whose body was found in an boarded-up crack house in the Central Park Village housing complex in Tampa.

At Holton's trial in December 1986, Newsome testified that he had seen Holton walking with Graddy the night of her murder.

Birkins, a jail trusty facing life in prison, testified that Holton had confessed to him. For his cooperation, Birkins got probation instead.

Defense lawyers didn't pick up on a discrepancy: Police reports put Holton with detectives at the time he supposedly confessing to Birkins at the Orient Road Jail.

In 2001, at a hearing to win Holton a new trial, both witnesses recanted. Newsome said he really had seen Holton, alone, near the condemned house three days before the murder. And Birkins, who had known Holton all his life, admitted he made up his testimony to get a deal.

After Holton's release, FDLE agents interviewed the two witnesses again.

Newsome told agents that Holton's defense team broke him down by appealing to his conscience. They told him that Holton, another black man, was going to get railroaded.

But after Newsome testified in 2001, he regretted it, he said. Newsome said he went to the state attorney's office to report that he had lied - for real, this time.

Birkins told FDLE agents that two investigators for Holton found him in a convenience store by the North Boulevard housing projects. Birkins, who is homeless, was drinking heavily and using drugs.

Holton's defense investigators pressured him to testify at the hearing for a new trial, Birkins said. He claimed they gave him $20 and another $20 a second time. After he testified, the investigators gave Birkins $80, he said.

When they were done with him, Birkins said, he felt like he had been used. Holton's investigators discarded him, he said, like a dog.

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