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Friday, September 25, 2009

Witness intimidation, secrecy, and the right to a fair trial

Witness intimidation is a serious problem in many drug and gang-related investigations. When prosecuting certain defendants, the government needs to be able to protect its witnesses from threats and intimidation. At the same time, most defendants pose no threat to witnesses, and defendants are constitutionally entitled to know who will testify against them and to get material evidence about those witnesses. The Court of Appeals of Maryland, the state's highest or 'supreme' court, recently issued a thoughtful decision that highlights many of the tensions inherent in these two competing concerns. In Lancaster v. Maryland, in an armed robbery prosecution, the Court held that the trial judge erroneously permitted the government to withhold the names of key witnesses from the defendants before trial. The Court concluded that the government failed to support its contentions that the witnesses had been threatened or that the jailed defendants posed a substantial threat. The Court wrote:
The State failed to present any evidence regarding specific threats from Lancaster, his brother, or their associates, against the witnesses. No evidence was presented regarding Lancaster's reputation for violence . . . The state also failed to identify any persons who might have carried out the alleged threats against the witnesses as Lancaster and his brother were incarcerated at the time. . . . We further conclude that the protective order in effect tied defense counsel's hands and foreclosed him from pursuing a valuable source of information for cross-examination of the State's witnesses.
The government had withheld the names of four witnesses: two of those witnesses were accomplices in the robbery and received light sentences in exchange for their cooperation, a fact that the defendants did not learn until trial.

By contrast, in Coleman v. State, an earlier Maryland case, the Court concluded that the trial judge properly withheld witness names from the defendants. In Coleman, the defendants were part of a gang that had threatened witnesses, there was evidence of specific threats against witnesses, and the defendants in the case were accused of murder.

The Lancaster and Coleman cases highlight the contextual nature of the problem--in some cases, withholding witness names and other information unfairly prevents defendants from challenging the accusations against them, while in other cases it is a vital precaution. Courts are supposed to carefully evaluate the facts each time. All too often, however, the mere claim that witnesses might be intimidated is persuading courts and other decision-makers to keep information secret, a phenomenon I explore at length in Chapter Four entitled "Secret Justice." Here's an excerpt:
Informant practices are inherently secretive: snitches often need their identities protected for safety, while the effectiveness of informant-driven investigations turns on their clandestine nature. But the secretive effects of using informants go far beyond ongoing investigations or protecting particular informants' identities. Snitching has altered the ways that investigations are conducted and recorded; it affects public record-keeping by police and prosecutors, discovery practices, and what gets written down during plea negotiations. It has also shaped the informational rules prescribed by Supreme Court doctrine, internal judicial branch information policies, and even information-sharing between the Department of Justice and Congress. In other words, the pressure to conceal informant practices broadly affects the criminal system's culture of record keeping, adversarial information-sharing, public policy and disclosure, making the entire process less transparent and accountable.