Defense alleges misconduct at trials in girl’s 1990 slaying

IOWA CITY, Iowa(AP)— At three trials over three decades, a convicted thief has testified that he saw Stanley Liggins with 9-year-old Jennifer Lewis shortly before she was kidnapped, raped, strangled and left dead in Davenport, Iowa.

Antonio Holmes insisted at each trial that prosecutors did not give him any benefit in exchange for his testimony, which helped convict Liggins at trials in 1993 and 1995 and keep him behind bars since then. But newly unearthed records show that those statements weren’t true: The Scott County Attorney’s office had given him a favorable plea agreement that was conditioned upon his testimony at Liggins’ trial.

The discovery is a potential blow to the prosecution in the 1990 slaying that shocked the Quad-Cities region of eastern Iowa and western Illinois. Liggins has twice been convicted of first-degree murder but won new trials, after appeals courts ruled the verdicts were tainted by other errors.

A jury deadlocked last year on whether he was guilty at a third trial, and a fourth is scheduled for next week.

Liggins’ attorney last week found old court documents showing that Holmes was required to testify at Liggins’ trial under a 1992 plea agreement that reduced theft and burglary charges. Among those involved in negotiating Holmes’ deal was assistant Scott County Attorney Julie Walton, who is still prosecuting Liggins.

At last year’s trial, Walton asked Holmes whether he had “ever received anything” from her office for his cooperation. “No,” he replied.

A judge has scheduled a hearing Tuesday in Davenport to consider defense motions asking her to force Walton to recuse from the case, to delay the trial to allow for additional investigation or to dismiss the case altogether.

Liggins’ attorney Aaron Hawbaker argued in a filing that Holmes’ credibility would have been undermined if jurors were aware he was getting an “extremely generous” deal in exchange for his testimony. He argued that the prosecutors’ efforts to “repeatedly elicit untruthful testimony from a key witness” are misconduct violating his client’s rights.

“This newly discovered information calls into serious question the integrity of this prosecution and exposes the limitless efforts by the state to deny Mr. Liggins a fair trial in exchange for a conviction,” he wrote.

Scott County Attorney Mike Walton, who is Julie Walton’s brother, said the allegations are inaccurate but didn’t explain how, saying his office would elaborate in a filing.

Holmes’ testimony was significant at all three trials because he was the only witness to claim to have seen Liggins and Lewis together — at a liquor store in Rock Island, Illinois, moments before her kidnapping. Liggins, who was a friend of Lewis’ mother, has said that he gave Lewis $1 to walk to the store to buy gum and that she never returned. Her burning body was found behind a Davenport elementary school in September 1990, and Liggins was charged in her death a week later.

Holmes told jurors in 1993 that he did receive a plea agreement but that the leniency “didn’t have anything to do with me testifying.” In 1995, he testified he didn’t get anything from the state for his testimony.

But minutes from a December 1992 hearing show that the plea agreement called for Holmes to testify at Liggins’ February 1993 trial. The presiding judge indicated he would follow the agreement “if the anticipated testimony is given,” they show. Court staff members were instructed to set Holmes’ sentencing date “post-Liggins trial.” The day after Holmes’ testimony, the court held his sentencing hearing and the judge accepted the plea agreement.
The deal dismissed first-degree theft and burglary charges, and he pleaded guilty to operating a vehicle without the owner’s consent. A potential prison sentence was reduced to six months with credit for time served.

Julie Walton also cut Holmes a break weeks before he would testify a second time against Liggins at a 1995 retrial after the Iowa Supreme Court overturned Liggins’ first conviction. She dismissed two pending felony burglary cases against Holmes, saying the state needed more time to analyze shoe prints and fingerprints.

Hawbaker said he wants to investigate whether the dismissal of those cases were linked to Holmes’ testimony.

Holmes is not the first witness whose relationship with the state has become an issue. A woman who was a paid Davenport police informant testified that she saw a vehicle resembling Liggins’ near the school where the girl’s body was left. The Iowa Court of Appeals in 2013 granted Liggins a new trial, ruling that the state failed to disclose her relationship with police.

By Associated Press