A judge has denied a request by the attorneys for Stanley Liggins to dismiss the murder case against him, to postpone his upcoming trial and recuse the prosecution from the case.
In written rulings filed Thursday, Judge Marlita Greve rejected the defense’s claims that prosecutors elicited false testimony from a key witness at his prior trials and failed to correct him. She also found “no merit” to the defense's reasons for seeking to delay his trial, slated to begin Tuesday.
“Instead, the court finds there would be a substantial injustice for the state,” Greve wrote. “Extending this trial by even a few months means more witnesses may move, die, become unavailable, or simply vanish. Memories will continue to fade. The parties, both the state and defendant, need a resolution. The court is convinced (the) defendant can and will receive a fair trial, be effectively represented and justice will be served.”
Liggins, 57, will be tried for the fourth time for the murder of Jennifer Lewis, 9, of Rock Island, on September 17, 1990. He was convicted in 1993 and 1995 and sentenced to life in prison. Both convictions were overturned. His third trial in Black Hawk County, moved due to pretrial publicity, ended in a mistrial when jurors could not reach a unanimous verdict.
Lewis' burning body was discovered that night in a field near a Davenport elementary school. Prosecutors say she was sexually abused and strangled before her body was set on fire.
Liggins had visited Lewis’ mother and stepfather and given her a dollar to buy him gum at a liquor store near her home.
At all three trials, a witness, Antonio Holmes, testified he saw Lewis at the store with a black man, whom he identified as Liggins, around the time she disappeared.
In a motion filed Feb. 28 and at a hearing Tuesday, Black Hawk County Public Defender Aaron Hawbaker accused prosecutors of eliciting false testimony from Holmes at each trial about his plea agreement and if he received any benefit for testifying against Liggins.
Holmes had two Class C felonies pleaded down to one aggravated misdemeanor with a six-month jail sentence, on the condition he truthfully testifies in any trial where he was a witness.
At all three trials, Holmes said he got a plea agreement that reduced charges, but denied receiving anything from prosecutors.
Hawbaker argued prosecutors should have corrected Holmes when he said he did not receive anything, and failure to do so amounted to prosecutorial misconduct.
He further argued two additional cases against Holmes were dismissed in 1995 and it was impossible to determine if they were dismissed for lack of evidence as prosecutors claimed, or in exchange for the testimony against Liggins.
Hawbaker argued Assistant Scott County Attorney Julie Walton is a material witness to Holmes’ plea agreement and a witness to the contents of the file of the dismissed cases and should recuse herself from the case.
Scott County Attorney Mike Walton said the evidence Hawbaker cited has been part of the public record for years, adding prosecutors did not hide the fact that Holmes received a plea agreement, which was admitted as an exhibit during trial.
Holmes’ testimony that he did not receive anything for his testimony was his opinion, Walton argued, and something the defense could have explored during cross-examination.
Greve wrote Holmes was cross-examined at all three trials and during a post-conviction relief application trial and the plea agreement was never hidden from the defense.
Two cases against Holmes that were dismissed in 1995 were included in cross-examination by Liggins’ defense attorneys during the 1995 trial.
“The court is hard-pressed to understand how the defense can now argue there has been some prosecutorial misconduct or Brady violation or that Mr. Liggins’ constitutional rights have been violated since all of this information has been disclosed for years and even decades.”
The judge said Holmes went to the police about what he allegedly saw at the liquor store several days after Lewis was killed.
“He did not come up with this information shortly before trial, or during the time he was facing charges,” Greve wrote. “Rather, more than two years before he was facing his own charges that resulted in him receiving a plea agreement, Mr. Holmes had reported this information to the police on his own accord.”
Greve wrote it was not ‘inconceivable” that Holmes was interpreting the prosecutor’s question to ask if he was to provide specific testimony or specifically against Liggins.
“That certainly is not part of the plea agreement,” the judge wrote. “If that was Mr. Holmes’ interpretation, then his answer was correct. In any event, nothing prohibited any of defendant’s counsel from cross-examining Mr. Holmes on that issue. Current defense counsel (in 2018) did vigorously cross-examine Mr. Holmes on the plea agreement and also referenced his lack of credibility on this and other issues in his testimony during the closing argument.”