Their testimony helped send a man to death row, but his conviction later was overturned.
By DAVID KARP
Published November 6, 2003
Related story: The innocence defence
In January 2003, Rudolph Holton walked away from death row. This is why he spent 16 years there: Tampa police never pursued a suspect accused of raping the murder victim. A jailhouse snitch said Holton confessed, though later he said he made it up to get a break in his own case. The prosecutor told the jury a hair found on the victim was Holton's, but he couldn't prove it. The judge refused to wait for a key defense witness. To set Holton free, it would take a lawyer who was too young and too reckless to know what she was up against. [6/6/03]
TAMPA - Circuit Judge Rex Barbas had one question for the men standing before him.
"Why?" the judge asked. "Why did you guys lie?"
Flemmie Birkins, shackled in handcuffs, told the judge he didn't know what he was doing. "I was hooked on drugs," he said.
Johnny Newsome said he didn't know about the law. "I had no one (to) represent me," he said.
Wednesday, the two men's lies carried a heavy price.
Because he did not tell the truth, the judge sentenced Birkins to 13 years in state prison. Newsome got a 14-year prison term.
Both men, in their 50s with graying hair, pleaded guilty to lying in a 1986 murder case.
Their testimony helped send Rudolph Holton to Florida's death row for a murder he says he did not commit. The Florida Supreme Court overturned his conviction last year, and prosecutors released him in January.
Wednesday, Holton said the case shows that prosecutors should not use witnesses like Birkins - who got a deal for his testimony - in capital cases.
"They ought to cut out this jailhouse informant stuff," Holton said.
Holton, who has known Birkins since childhood, said he had no hard feeling against either man.
"I am just thankful that I didn't fall through the cracks," he said.
Prosecutors say the case sends the message that witnesses should not lie in court.
"Their conduct went to the very core of our criminal justice system," said Assistant State Attorney Sharon Vollrath. "Because of what they did either an innocent man was on death row for 16 years or a murderer was freed."
Wednesday, Birkins begged the judge for mercy. He said he was a changed man.
"Sir, please in the name of God give me a chance on probation," Birkins wrote in a letter to Judge Barbas. "I would rather die home than (in) prison."
He said he had been "spit on" and "hit aside the head" after newspapers reported that he had been a "snitch."
Prosecutors still believe that Birkins and Newsome were telling the truth in 1986 when they testified for the state. They say the witnesses lied in 2001 when they recanted their testimony.
"The public needs to know we will not tolerate this criminal act," Vollrath said. "We will prosecute and punish those that have their own agenda and fail to honor the oath to tell the truth."
The lies that got Birkins and Newsome in trouble started 17 years ago, and were almost forgotten.
In 1986, police found the burned body of 17-year-old Katrina Graddy in an abandoned crack house in Tampa's Central Park Village housing project. Graddy, a prostitute, had been raped with a beer bottle, strangled and set on fire.
Holton, a high school dropout with a $1,000-a-day drug habit and a long record of burglaries and thefts, was picked up by police.
The key witness against him was Birkins, a Hillsborough jail inmate who had known Holton from the streets.
Birkins testified that Holton admitted to the murder. His testimony had holes that Holton's public defender didn't exploit.
At the exact hour that Birkins claimed Holton was confessing at the jail, police records show that Holton was at the Tampa Police Department, being interviewed by detectives.
Prosecutors told the jury that Birkins got no deal on charges for burglary and grand theft charges in exchange for his testimony.
But after Holton was sentenced to death, the prosecutor asked a judge for leniency for Birkins, who could have gotten life as an habitual offender.
Instead, Birkins got probation.
Fifteen years later, Holton's defense team tracked Birkins down and got him to testify again.
This time, Birkins swore that Holton had never confessed. He said he had made it up to get a deal.
Newsome also recanted.
In 1986, he said he saw Holton with Graddy the night of the murder. In 2001, he said he hadn't seen them together.
Circuit Judge Daniel Perry ruled that Holton should get a new trial - but it wasn't because of the new testimony. Perry said he found the new stories unbelievable.
Instead, Perry ruled that police and prosecutors had inadvertently withheld evidence favorable to Holton's defense.
Authorities did not tell Holton's lawyers that Graddy had reported a rape days before her murder.
Defense lawyers have called for an investigation of the conduct of the police and prosecutors, but none has been opened.
Also, physical evidence that tied Holton to the crime fell away. In 1986, prosecutors claimed a hair found in Graddy's mouth belong to Holton. DNA tests proved it didn't.
With the case gone, prosecutors called Birkins and Newsome in for interviews again. Both changed their story again.
This time, they said they told the truth at the trial in 1986, but lied in court in 2001. Prosecutors realized they had no case.
"We have to vouch for the credibility of (our witnesses)," Vollrath said, "and we could not."
- Times staff writer Christopher Goffard contributed to this report.