Now this is a tough case. Although the State Supreme Court’s vote was unanimous, the Court took a great deal of time, as in more than two and a half years to mull over this matter and reach its decision.
This very sensitive issue pertains to the disclosure of witnesses and the possible repercussions therefrom.
Let me start by indicating that, unfortunately, often people who witness gangland slayings end up being killed before the trial takes place. There is then no one left to testify against the gang member, and he goes free. The issue here is whether or not prosecutors must be forced to disclose the names of witnesses to the defense in advance of the trial. On the one hand, the prosecutors’ want to protect the witnesses from reprisal, however the defense needs to have an opportunity to investigate the background of the witnesses and to have an investigator speak to the witnesses in order to properly prepare for trial.
The Court voted 7-0 that testimony from an anonymous witness “undermines a defendant’s Constitutional right to confront his accuser.” This actually was a compromise verdict in that while prosecutors were disappointed, it was not a clear victory for the defense, for it permits the trial judge to keep the names of witnesses from defense attorneys until the trial starts. Interestingly, the ruling also allows trial court judges to, if they wish, give the witness names to the lawyer of the individual charged, while instructing the lawyer to not turn over the names of the witnesses to his client. Nothing like asking an attorney to keep something from the person he is supposed to represent.
This matter began in 1997 where a Mr. Alvarado and a Mr. Lopez are each awaiting trial for the first degree murder of prison inmate Jose Uribe. In their cases, Superior Court Judge Robert Perry ruled that the defense could never learn the names of the three County Jail inmates who were the chief witnesses for the prosecution, as they allegedly witnessed the murder. This ruling would have created a situation in which the witnesses would have appeared and testified, and no one from the defense would ever have known who they were. Judge Perry issued this order after being warned by prosecutors that a well-known prison gang known as the Mexican Mafia would find them and kill them in jail if their identities became known. The defense appealed this ruling and the Second District Court of Appeal voted two to one to uphold Judge Perry’s order. The defense then appealed to the State Supreme Court, and the Supreme Court reversed, as Chief Justice Ronald George wrote: “Whenever non-disclosure of a witness’ identity will prevent the effective investigation and cross-examination of a crucial witness, the confrontation clause precludes the prosecution from relying on the witness’ testimony at trial while refusing to disclose the witness’ identity. “ I fully agree with this, however, disclosing the names of the witnesses when the trial is about to commence is going to make it very difficult for the defense to do a thorough investigation. What the Court appears to be trying to do here is balance the competing needs of the safety of the witnesses, and the need for the defense to be able to effectively prepare its case and cross-examine key witnesses. Justice George further indicated that the secreting of witnesses would “effectively emasculate the right of cross-examination itself,” however, he acknowledged the Court was “keenly aware of the problem of witness intimidation” (Not to mention witness murdering).
This ruling did not suit the DA, who indicated that as soon as the witness names become known, they will be killed. The DA indicated that if the witness names are disclosed before, during, or after the trial, the Mexican Mafia will find them and kill them, either to prevent them from testifying or as revenge for their having testified.
This opinion is being viewed as not being the most clear opinion ever put forth by the State Supreme Court due to the question of whether or not defense attorneys will obtain witness names in time to do a competent pre-trial investigation. Needless to say, in a murder case, you want to be able to do as thorough an investigation as possible, including determining whether or not witnesses who are going to testify against your client have criminal records. It turns out in the case of Mr. Alvarado, one of the jailhouse witnesses does have a prior murder conviction.
I really feel for the State Supreme Court on this one. This is a situation where they are damned if they do, and damned if they don’t. In the real world, people get intimidated and/or killed in situations such as this if they are to be witnesses. Also in the real world, defendants are entitled to a vigorous defense, and that includes being able to effectively cross-examine and investigate all witnesses who are planning to testify against them. No one wants witnesses killed and no one wants defendants to not get a fair trial. The Supreme Court appears to have done the best it can to try to forge a middle road, although it appears as if further rulings will be needed on this issue to clarify exactly what this ruling means on a case-by-case basis.