In 1988, in Brooklyn Dana Garner was kidnapped, tied up in a nearby apartment and beaten up for two days; he then escaped and went to the police.
Garner said he saw one of his captors coming out of a store. Based solely on Garner's testimony, the man was sentenced to 10 years to life in prison.
Two years later, he said he witnessed a man shooting an Uzi into a passing car and murdering two people. Based solely on Garner's testimony, that man was sentenced to 36 years to life in prison.
A week later, in the same area, a man with a shotgun killed one person and wounded two others. Again, Garner said he saw it with his own eyes. The man he fingered this time was sentenced to 30 years to life. There was one problem: Garner was lying.
Dan Rather reports about the havoc wrought by Garner's testimony.
Criminal lawyer Howard Kirsch represented one of the three men. "This is the only case I ever tried where I thought that even though we got convicted that this man was innocent," he says.
Kirsch found Garner unbeatable. "He was very believable," Kirsch says. "He didn't fight with the lawyers....He'd answer the questions. In fact at times, as I recall, he'd be almost apologetic that he had to put this guy into this situation."
Over the years, only one person was certain that Garner should not have been believed. That was Garner himself. "Basically it's a proven (fact) that it was all a lie," he says now.
When Garner was supposedly witnessing these crimes, Michael Race was a detective in Garner's area, which had a very high crime rate. Anybody willing to report a crime was a godsend, he says.
"The highest we had was 128 people murdered in one year," says Race, now a private investigator. "That's just murders. Then we have all the people being shot, had about 500 people being shot a year."
The crime rate was so high, that it didn't surprise Race that Garner claimed to have seen two murders in a week, he says.
But even then, there was someone who knew Garner was a liar and willing to tell anyone who would listen: Otis Gary. Now a Marine sergeant, Gary is a first cousin to Garner. They were raised in the same home and slept in the same room.
"He told more lies than he did the truth," Gary says. "And everyone knew that. Everyone in our family pretty much knew where Dana (Garner) stood as far as telling the truth."
One of those convicted on Garner's testimony is Jeffrey Blake, who in 1991 was sentenced to 36 years to life for a double murder.
For years nobody listened or cared that innocent people may been in prison. Then Michelle Fox, a lawyer with New York City's Legal Aid Society, became involved. After having reviewed hundred of cases, she found this one unique. She couldn't believe that so many people had believed Garner.
"I met Dana (Garner), and it became obvious to me that he has a major problem telling the truth,"> she remembers.
She learned that Gary had tried to warn the district attorney. Gary knew Garner was lying about the murder in Brooklyn because the day of the murder Garner had been in North Carolina. Gary confronted his cousin in front of Blake's lawyers and the district attorney. But Garner insisted that he wasn't lying.
Garner says now that he knew he was lying and wanted to take back his lie, but was scared of a perjury charge.
"They just wanted to solve cases, and I don't think they did very much investigating either in the police department or in the DA's office," Fox says.
Garner felt guilty enough to confess his lies to Fox. But he had second thoughts in court. He pled the Fifth. He says his lawyer told him that if he recanted, he would be sent to prison. So Blake stayed in prison.
Fox kept digging and discovered that Garner had told police that a former girlfriend, Margaret Allen, had been with him when he saw Blake commit the murders. Fox's investigator found the girlfriend in North Carolina; she said they had not seen a murder.
With Allen as a witness, Fox again convinced Garner to admit to lying. This time he didn't back out. So in 1998, after more than eight years behind bars, Blake went free.
At that point, Garner's lies started to unravel further. Fox's colleague, Sara Bennett, began investigating the Crosby case. As a result of her investigation, Crosby was freed in December 1999.
But the third man convicted on Garner's testimony, Ruben Ortega, is still in prison, even though Garner admits that he lied in that case, too.
Says Ortega: "The murder I was charged for? I didn't do it. Period. Point blank, I didn't do it at all."
Ortega remains in prison because of the testimony of another witness, who also may be lying: Ortega's legal aid lawyer, Steve Wasserman, is trying to get a new trial.
Why did Garner lie? Fox thinks that he liked having an audience. Bennett says that he fits the definition of a pathological liar: "He's somebody who just lies. His lies are easily discovered. And he lies for no apparent reason."
Garner says it was not police attention that made him lie but police threats - that he would be accused of crimes if he did not accuse somebody else. He was "terrified" of the police, he says.
"Basically, I was being fed information that I had no idea of," Garner says. "They decided the whole picture for me." The police "spoon-fed" him, he says.
Garner says Race was the officer pulling the strings. Wasserman believes that in this case, Garner is telling the truth.
"It would be impossible for him to have gotten over on the district attorney and the grand jury and the trial jury without some major assistance from Detective Race," Wasserman says.
Race angrily contends that Garner is lying.
But even though Garner wasn't there, he still knew many of the details of the deaths and how they happened.
Did polce furnish those details? Race says no. He says that Garner might have learned the details from "people that are on the street," who could have given him facts about the cases.
Today, Blake is a messenger in New York. Crosby works construction jobs in Brooklyn. But Ortega remains in prison.
"I would like to know why he didn't come out earlier with the truth," Ortega says of Garner. "I got 10 years in. Why did he wait so much time to actually come out with the truth?"
Garner himself will not serve any time in prison. The statute of limitations for perjury has expired in all three cases.
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