January 27, 2015

On his final days in office, then-Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn granted executive clemency to two Jenner & Block pro bono clients.  On January 12, 2015, the Governor pardoned long-time firm client Johnnie Lee Savory on his conviction for a 1977 Peoria, Ill. double murder.  On the same day, the Governor commuted client Willie Johnson’s 30-month prison sentence in a controversial perjury case to time already served; Mr. Johnson was released from prison two days later.

In Mr. Savory’s case, the Governor’s pardon, which followed his December 2011 commutation of Mr. Savory’s sentence, resulted from a petition for executive clemency originally filed by the firm in 2003.  Mr. Savory was only 14 years old when he was first convicted in 1977 for the murder of his friend James Robinson Jr., and Robinson’s sister Connie Cooper.  After Mr. Savory’s initial conviction was overturned because it was based on an involuntary confession, Mr. Savory was again convicted and sentenced to 40 to 80 years in prison, based in large part on the testimony of three witnesses -- who have since recanted – that Mr. Savory made inculpatory statements following the crime.  Mr. Savory was released on parole in 2006 as a result of the efforts of the firm and Northwestern’s Center on Wrongful Conviction.  The firm and Northwestern have pursued Mr. Savory’s claims of innocence and sought DNA testing in a number of forums including state and federal courts, and before the Illinois Prisoner Review Board and the Governor. 

The firm’s efforts on behalf of Mr. Savory have been led since 2001 by Partner Christopher Tompkins.  Over the years, numerous Jenner & Block attorneys and support staff have assisted with various aspects of Mr. Savory’s case, including current Partners David Jimenez-Ekman and April A. Otterberg, and Paralegals Mary Frances Patston and Daniel O. Garcia as well as former partners Brent Stratton and Matthew Neumeier and former associate Gabriella Filisko.  Partner Thomas P. Sullivan also participated in Mr. Savory’s cause, advocating for executive clemency on behalf of numerous prominent members of the Chicago legal community.

In Mr. Johnson’s case, he was prosecuted for perjury in 2011 after he recanted 1994 testimony implicating two men in a double murder two years earlier.  In that shooting, Mr. Johnson himself suffered nine gunshot wounds.  From his hospital bed, he identified Albert Kirkland and Cedric Cal as the shooters, and he later testified against them at their 1994 trial in which they were convicted.  After the trial, Mr. Johnson moved out of Illinois and left the gang lifestyle behind.  He married and became a stay-at-home father of two young children.  Years later, an investigator for one of the two convicted mentracked him down at his new home and persuaded him to sign an affidavit stating that his 1994 trial testimony was false.  Mr. Johnson later recanted his 1994 testimony under oath at a post-conviction hearing for the two men.  The perjury prosecution was brought under an Illinois law allowing proof of perjury by two conflicting statements, without proof of which was false.

In April 2014, 23 former prosecutors and judges sent a letter to Cook County State’s Attorney Anita Alvarez, urging her to drop the perjury case and stating that the prosecution of recanting witnesses, based only on their having made two contradictory statements, would discourage truthful as well as untruthful recantations. 

Mr. Johnson pleaded guilty to perjury and began serving his prison sentence on October 7, 2014, after it became clear that even though his 1994 testimony was far outside the statutory limitations period for perjury, Mr. Johnson could be found guilty of perjury based only on his “two contradictory statements,” without the prosecution having to prove that his 2011 recantation was false.  His lawyers at Jenner & Block promptly filed a petition for executive clemency, asking the Governor’s office to act immediately to prevent the case from continuing to deter other witnesses from giving truthful recantations.  Mr. Johnson received clemency slightly more than a month after Jenner & Block filed the petition on his behalf.

Mr. Johnson’s legal team was led by Partner Gabriel A. Fuentes and included Partner Andrew W. Vail, Associate Justin C. Steffen, Paralegal Casey J. Gioiell and former partner Jason J. Green.  The firm team also partnered with private attorney Steven A. Greenberg on the case.