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2 witnesses admit to lying in murder case

The men were charged with perjury Thursday for putting another man on death row years ago.

DAVID KARP
Published June 6, 2003

TAMPA - Fifteen years after their words sent a man to death row, two witnesses took the stand and said they had lied.

They were admitting this deception, they said, to free an innocent man and right a wrong.

For that act, the two were charged Thursday with perjury in a capital case, a second-degree felony that could put them in prison for 15 years.

Flemmie Birkins, a homeless 49-year-old, was arrested Thursday outside the Salvation Army and jailed on $10,000 bail. Johnny Lee Newsome, 52, already was in jail on drug and aggravated battery charges. He was held without bail.

"Good. That is good news," said Rudolph Holton, who spent 16 years on death row for a murder he says he did not commit. "Look at all the time I spent in prison for nothing ... Now, justice is served."

In January, 2003, Holton became the 24th person released from Florida's death row when the Florida Supreme Court threw out his conviction. Prosecutors could not retry Holton because two witnesses had recanted, new DNA tests had helped clear him, and evidence withheld by police had surfaced. State Attorney Mark Ober says the law doesn't require him to prove when the two men lied.

Did they lie in 1986, when their testimony put Holton on death row? Or in 2001, when their recantations helped set free him? It doesn't matter, he said.

"They swore to tell the truth, and they violated that oath, and a horrible tragedy occurred as a result of that oath," Ober said. "Either an innocent man has spent the past 16 years on death row for a crime he did not commit, or a guilty man was set free, and that is inexcusable."

Defense lawyers say the perjury charges will make it harder for witnesses to acknowledge lies.

"I don't think you need to be a rocket scientist to figure out it will have a chilling effect," said Steve Hanlon, a lawyer at Holland & Knight who has worked on cases of the wrongfully convicted.

Many of the 108 inmates freed from death row across the United States were exonerated because witnesses changed their stories.

Charging those witnesses with perjury punishes them for correcting an injustice, lawyers said.

Birkins and Newsome helped get Holton convicted of raping and killing Katrina Graddy, a 17-year-old prostitute who lived in Tampa.

Birkins told a jury in 1986 that Holton had confessed while they talked in jail, admitting he strangled the girl in a crack house late at night, and then bought gas to set the house on fire.

Defense lawyers didn't detect it, but Birkins' testimony was full of holes:

When Holton was supposedly confessing in jail, police records put him at police headquarters. And a gas station attendant said no one bought gas all night.

At trial, the prosecutor told the jury Birkins was facing just three years, and testified without a deal. He faced a lengthy prison term.

At a hearing in 2001 to win Holton a new trial, Birkins said he lied to get his sentence reduced. In 1986, Newsome told the jury that he had seen Holton and the victim walking together. Years later at a hearing, Newsome said he lied.

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