VALLEJO — Johnny E. Tatum was sitting a week ago in jail waiting to receive a life sentence for raping a 15-year-old girl, the daughter of his ex-girlfriend.
Judge Dwight Ely this week took the extraordinary step of throwing out a jury’s guilty verdict, reached after two days of deliberation in July 2013. Ely also threw out Tatum’s conviction on rape and gun charges.
Tatum was in court briefly Friday – he remains locked up since his 2011 arrest – and heard prosecutors say they want a new trial on the same charges for Tatum. Ely scheduled the trial for March.
John Coffer, Tatum’s defense attorney, is troubled the District Attorney’s Office is still pursuing the case against Tatum, even after its own investigation turned up evidence that the 15-year-old accuser conspired with her mother to make up the rape claim.
Coffer, a former prosecutor who is widely regarded as one of the area’s top criminal defense attorneys, turned up text messages from the accuser’s mother to Tatum’s wife sent five weeks after the trial in which she mocked Tatum’s wife and admitted to putting her daughter up to lying.
Before Ely threw out the conviction, the mother took the witness stand and invoked her right against self-incrimination as guaranteed by the Fifth Amendment, refusing to answer questions about the text messages.
“I have no doubt that the DA’s Office will not prosecute the complaining witness for perjury nor will a case be brought against the mother for putting her up to it,” Coffer said. “It is in my view very damaging to the justice system that this act, which does corrupt the system, will go unpunished, and unheard of by the public. I am concerned that the public will never know how much damage was almost done to an innocent man in its name.”
Prosecutors concede that the damning text messages are probably from the girl’s mother but say there’s some uncertainty, therefore the messages should be ignored.
The case against Tatum began in early 2011 when the girl told a Sacramento sheriff’s deputy that she had been raped nearly a year earlier by Tatum in his car, which was parked in an isolated spot along the Vallejo waterfront. Seven months later, shortly before Tatum’s arrest, a Vallejo officer interviewed the girl a second time and while some of her story changed, she still said Tatum had a gun with him at the time of the attack.
During Tatum’s trial, the girl took the witness stand and described what Tatum did to her. Her testimony was about the only evidence jurors saw from prosecutors. Throughout her testimony, she was facing away from the jury and she kept her face covered with her hands.
Coffer described the girl’s time on the witness stand as “farcical,” adding that after she was done the prosecutor told him and Ely that he was thinking about dropping the charges against Tatum. Instead, the prosecutor put the girl’s foster mother on the witness stand. She testified that the girl showed her text messages on her cellphone from Tatum, mentioning the rape. The foster mother said she lost the phone in her house, which she said was too messy for her to find it.
A second trial, while scheduled, is not a certainty. Prosecutors recently told Coffer the accuser cannot be found and has fled her foster home for parts unknown.
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