Charles Wilhite, a Springfield man convicted of murder in 2010 was re-tried this week and found not guilty. The verdict was celebrated by Wilhite’s supporters, but for state prosecutors, it points to challenges in gaining reliable testimony in criminal cases.
Wilhite was granted a re-trial after a key government witness, Nathan Perez, recanted his original testimony. Perez claimed police coerced him into testifying Wilhite was the shooter in the 2008 murder of Alberto Rodriguez. David Lewis, one of Wilhite’s lawyers, says the Springfield police took a narrow view in their investigation of the crime.
“I think what happened was the police made a decision early on that Charles was the guy they wanted,” Lewis says, “and the investigation, instead of being open…was about confirming that view.”
But Hampden County District Attorney Mark Mastrioanni says he felt the state had enough evidence to re-try despite the challenge of witness recantations.
“Nonetheless, Mr. Wilhite remained after reevaluation…of the evidence, the main suspect, that the evidence we did have still supported going forward with the charges.”
Mastrioanni says while he respects the verdict, the case speaks to a broader challenge for law enforcement to collect reliable witness testimony. He says witnesses are often pressured to not cooperate with police. Springfield-based defense attorney Don Frank says that often leads law enforcement to use legal threats.
“It is very often the case when young men are involved in the City of Springfield, that they [police] use coercive, that they’re left to use coercive tactics in order to convince people to testify.”
Charles Wilhite was released Thursday after serving 40 months in prison.