Changing stories told on the stand after convictions is so common, court watchers have a name for it: “Testilying.” A stark reality of the criminal justice system is that people lie. They lie to stay out of jail, to get out of jail, to curry favor with cops, the Philadelphia Inquirer reports. Police sometimes lie, too. Untangling who is lying in criminal cases can be “absolutely daunting,” said lawyer Richard Scheff, who recalled wrestling with the issue when he was a federal prosecutor. “There can be any number of reasons why people change their statements.”
Scientific advances in crime solving — especially DNA testing — have freed the wrongfully convicted and proven guilt. Almost as a rule, experts say, courts don’t like to reopen old cases without compelling scientific evidence. Jennifer Creed Selber, former chief of the Philadelphia District Attorney’s office’s homicide unit, acknowledged witness recantations are a “pervasive” problem. She believes witnesses usually recant because they fear retaliation from defendants. “If we attempted to prosecute every witness that perjures themselves, it would be a completely unworkable and impossible situation.”
The Inquirer reviews how a testilying controversy played out in a 2012 review of a 1991 murder case.