Saturday, July 22, 2006

Simple Justice

In the very early 1990s, just as the Baltic States were gaining their independence, I took a Soros-funded trip to Latvia with a group of American and European law teachers. There was a debate in Riga among the visitors about the vices and virtues of trial by jury. Before the debate I had had a conversation with a "first instance" Latvian judge, the equivalent of a trial judge. She told me that witnesses would often fail to appear for trial because the penalty for failure to appear was only a few inflation-reduced Rubles and there was (then) no procedure for arresting witnesses to secure their presence at trial. At the debate over jury trial -- the protagonists were John Langbein and Richard Lempert -- I told the assembled group that, jury trial or no, nothing much mattered if witnesses could not be made to appear for trial. But getting witnesses to show up is sometimes also a big problem in the United States. See Avi Salzman, "Judge Dismisses a Connecticut Murder Case After Those Who Saw Shooting Disappear," NYTimes Online (July 22, 2006):
Rafael Gomez was shot through the jaw and neck in front of at least six people on a street corner in Bridgeport, Conn.'?s rough East End about 4:45 in the morning on Oct. 17, 2003. Bleeding profusely, he staggered 165 feet before collapsing in a pool of his own blood. He was pronounced dead at a local hospital.

Nearly three years later, the case came to trial this week in Superior Court in Bridgeport. But as the prosecutor prepared to put his three star witnesses on the stand on the fourth day of the trial, he ran into a problem. None of them could be found.

As a result, Judge Lawrence L. Hauser dismissed the case against Arlyn Williams, 25, who is in state prison on a drug conviction. He is scheduled to be released in September and cannot be tried again on the murder charge.

Joseph T. Corradino, a senior assistant state'?s attorney for the Fairfield Judicial District who tried the case, said he became concerned early in the week that his witnesses would not show up after the police were unable to find them. He said he "?tap-danced for the first few days to give us more time" to locate them.

But when Thursday came and the witnesses were still missing, he told Judge Hauser that he could no longer prosecute the case.

"In this city we've got an amazing problem with not just witness apathy, but with witness fear,"? Mr. Corradino said.

Prosecutors also struggle nationwide to persuade frightened witnesses to testify. The fears are not unfounded. In New York City, for instance, at least 20 witnesses to crimes have been killed since 1980.