CLAYTON — St. Louis County Prosecuting Attorney Wesley Bell has announced that he is launching a perjury probe into testimony during a recent discrimination trial that resulted in a jury awarding a gay police officer nearly $20 million.
Those whose statements could come under the prosecutor’s eye include some of the highest ranking commanders in the St. Louis County Police Department — several of whom could be in line to become the next chief.
Sgt. Keith Wildhaber filed suit in January 2017, saying he had been passed over for promotions because he is gay. At trial last month, police commanders denied making homophobic remarks, rejected the idea that the sergeant’s transfer to a less desirable precinct had anything to do with his discrimination complaints, and disputed other examples of departmental discrimination and retaliation described by witnesses.
Conflicting testimony is common at trials, but experts say proving perjury is an arduous task.
Bell would have to show that witnesses intentionally and knowingly gave false statements while under oath, that those statements were germane to the case, and that they had a motive to lie, according to Ben Gershman, a former prosecutor for the Manhattan District Attorney’s office who is now a law professor at New York-based Pace University.
“Perjury is really difficult to prove when there is inconsistent or contradictory statements made on the stand,” he said. “But one thing we can conclude here is who the jury believed.”
Prosecutors must also prove that the line of questioning during the trial was clear, leaving no room for a witness to make an honest mistake.
“The verdict speaks to how the jury took the evidence and testimony by the police witnesses,” Gershman said. “Obviously they found the testimony false, not just mistaken, or accidental or an oversight. I think the jury saw it was blatantly and outrageously a lie. And the verdict is the result of how they viewed evidence here.”
The jury of six men and six women deliberated just under three hours before returning their verdict.
After the trial, some jurors pointed to several photos taken at a police charity event as key to their decision. The photos contradicted testimony by a county police captain who said he didn’t know one of the witnesses for Wildhaber, and hadn’t told her that Wildhaber was “fruity.”
‘I don’t know her’
Donna Woodland, a police widow, testified early in the trial that Capt. Guy Means had called Wildhaber “fruity” at a police charity event the two had attended. She said Means told her Wildhaber would never get promoted because “he is too out there” with his sexuality.
The next day, Means testified that he did not know Woodland and “did not recall” attending the charity event.
After reading the Post-Dispatch coverage of Means’ testimony, Woodland returned to the stand the following day, photo in hand of the two of them hugging and smiling in a photo booth at the event.
Means was Wildhaber’s captain in the North County precinct. Wildhaber reported there for his midnight shift Saturday, less than 24 hours after the verdict. Means was transferred to police headquarters Wednesday and put in the personnel unit.
Bell said in a statement after the trial that it would be irresponsible to speculate and draw conclusions about the conflicting testimony offered by various witnesses. He said his office would review the matter as it does with any allegations.
“Upholding the integrity of the judicial process and law enforcement is of the utmost importance,” he said in a text to a Post-Dispatch reporter.
A higher bar
As in many court cases, much of the testimony during the Wildhaber trial came down to one person’s word against another’s. In this case, often the words of police officers against other officers.
“The courts take perjury very seriously,” Gershman said. “When people lie under oath, it’s going to undermine the integrity of the legal system and that’s why perjury is such an important crime. When you take an oath to testify truthfully, you better adhere to that, otherwise you could be in big trouble.”
And the bar is higher for police officers, Gershman said.
“When police officers who are sworn to uphold the law come into court and lie, it may be a bigger deal than when citizens come in and lie, because they are public officials,” Gershman said. “They have a duty to uphold the Constitution.”
Perjury investigations also can include suborning perjury, Gershman noted.
“Suborning perjury means you are an accomplice to the crime,” he said. “If you and someone rob a bank and you are the lookout, you are still guilty of robbing the bank. It’s conspiracy to commit perjury if you put someone on the stand, permitting that perjury, you’re guilty of perjury.”
Among the conflicting testimony jurors heard during the five-day trial:
Within weeks of filing an EEOC complaint against the police department, Wildhaber was transferred from the afternoon shift in the Affton precinct to midnights in the Jennings precinct — almost tripling his commute to work.
Lt. Col. Troy Doyle testified at trial that Lt. Aaron Roediger, one of Wildhaber’s closest friends, called him saying Wildhaber wanted to transfer to the Jennings precinct because he wasn’t getting along with his captain in Affton.
Roediger testified that Doyle called him asking if Wildhaber would be OK with going to Jennings.
Belmar testified that the timing of Wildhaber’s transfer in relation to his EEOC complaint was “completely coincidental.”
Text message’s role
Before seeking one promotion, Wildhaber had texted one of Belmar’s aides, criticizing Belmar and the command staff for not attending the funeral of a former officer’s father.
Belmar testified that the text did not factor into his decision against promoting Wildhaber.
The county’s response to the federal government regarding Wildhaber’s EEOC complaint as cited by Wildhaber’s attorney at trial listed the text message as the top reason among three that Belmar had for not promoting Wildhaber.
A geography lesson
In December 2017, Sgt. Jenifer Williams helped to interview four officers who wanted to join the department’s Police Athletic League, which runs activities for children to improve police and community relations.
Capt. Juan Cox selected an officer whom Williams and the other evaluators ranked last. After Williams objected, she was transferred out of the program. She filed a grievance, and won her position back.
During the Wildhaber trial, Cox testified that Williams was transferred because he wanted to replace her with two officers instead of having a sergeant in that unit — a statement Chief Jon Belmar supported during his 3½ hours on the stand.
An arbitrator’s ruling on Williams’ grievance found that assertion to be “spurious” because there was no document trail suggesting such a change had been in the works. The ruling also stated that Belmar had acknowledged the transfer would not have occurred had union leaders not brought Williams’ objection to Cox’s choice to Belmar’s attention.