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James Catton

Other Federal Exonerations with Misconduct
In the fall of 1989, 43-year-old James Catton, a farmer in Peoria County, Illinois filed a $250,000 claim with the Federal Crop Insurance Corporation (FCIC) asserting that he suffered a total crop failure on 444 acres of hybrid corn.

The claim was denied and Catton, who was once heralded in his teens as one of the state’s most promising farmers, was indicted by a federal grand jury in 1993 on charges of making false statements to the FCIC. The indictment charged that Catton’s crop loss was not due to drought, but to poor farming.

Catton went on trial in U.S. District Court in Peoria in 1994. The prosecution presented the testimony of several expert witnesses that there was no drought and that his crop loss was due to “pathetic farming practices.”

One of the prosecution experts testified that he researched the growing conditions in the area of Peoria County where Catton’s land was located. He said he spoke to someone at Shissler Seed Company about several of their growing areas located near Catton’s land. The expert said Shissler reported an average yield of 30 bushels of hybrid corn per acre. Catton had claimed his yield was closer to 10 bushels per acre.

The prosecution asked the jury to infer that because Shissler was successful in the same geographic area, Catton’s losses were not drought-related.

On March 21, 1994, Catton was convicted of five counts of making false statements to the FCIC and he was sentenced to one year and nine months in prison. He remained free on bond while he appealed the conviction.

Not long after, Catton’s lawyer discovered that the expert had not actually spoken to anyone at Shissler. Instead, a Department of Agriculture investigator had asked an employee at Shissler to fax Shissler’s 1989 figures for the six growing areas. The agent had given the fax to the prosecution expert who averaged the yields for the six areas.
Catton’s lawyer also discovered that the investigator knew—but did not disclose to the defense—that Shissler, like Catton, had filed insurances claims with the FCIC for crop losses due to drought in 1989, and that some of those claims had been paid for growing areas as close as six miles from Catton’s acreage. Some of Shissler’s yields had been even smaller than Catton’s.
Catton’s lawyer filed a motion for a new trial based on the newly discovered evidence, but the motion was denied.

However, in July 1996, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit vacated Catton’s convictions and ordered a new trial. The appeals court said, “The prosecutor sat by in silence while (the expert) lied about having communicated with Shissler, even though the (investigator) who had given the fax…was sitting beside the prosecutor.”

The court said, “Had the jury known that Shissler had made drought claims—which the FCIC paid—for losses of the same crop in the same area and same year as Catton’s loss, not only would it not have inferred that Catton’s claim of drought was false from the experience of Shissler’s Peoria County fields…it might have thought Shissler’s experience…supported Catton’s defense that he too had been done in by drought.”

Catton went on trial a second time and a mistrial was declared after the jury was unable to reach a unanimous verdict—voting 11-1 to acquit. On May 4, 2004, the prosecution dismissed the charges.
– Maurice Possley

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Posting Date: 10/6/2014
Last Updated: 8/3/2020
Most Serious Crime:Fraud
Additional Convictions:
Reported Crime Date:1989
Sentence:1 year and 9 months
Age at the date of reported crime:43
Contributing Factors:False or Misleading Forensic Evidence, Perjury or False Accusation, Official Misconduct
Did DNA evidence contribute to the exoneration?:No