Thursday, July 8, 2010

The Uncooperative Witness

On Tuesday I saw something in court for the first time. An 18 year old young man was in custody and brought before the judge. What was his crime? Murder? Gun? Drugs? Robbery? Burglary?

Nope. He didn't show up for court to testify.

There was a recent murder trial. Apparently, the alleged murderer confessed his crime to the young man in custody. I assume police found out about the conversation and took his statement. The State subpoenaed him to testify at trial and he didn't show. I assume the State asked for a bench warrant since technically he was in contempt of court. It appears a warrant was issued, thus his presence in custody.

The defendant was convicted without the additional testimony. Sometime after the trial, this missing witness was picked up. On Tuesday he was finally brought before the court of which he was in contempt. He had been in custody for 35 days.

According to the judge, he could have held this young man in custody indefinitely. The judge heard about the young man from the public defender. Then the judge lectured him before finally releasing him. But, he was warned the next time he didn't show up when subpoenaed, he would be locked up longer than 35 days.

As he was walking out of the courtroom I thought to myself that what he did was probably pretty smart. This might shock you. Ignore a subpoena? How could that be smart?

Simple. It might have saved his life. There is an unwritten rule in Chicago streets that you don't go to court to testify. Period. Not for the State. Not for the defense. Stay out of other people's business. You might live longer.

Folks, this is real deal stuff and I am confronted with it regularly. I have an attempt murder case set for trial in 2 weeks. I have 2 witnesses that credibly put my client down the street from where the shooting happened. And neither of them want to come to court. The case was set for trial last month and only 1 of the witnesses came to court. I had to hide her in a different courtroom so she would feel safe.

If I have to drag people to court to testify in my case in chief by having them arrested, how comfortable am I going to feel about calling them as a witness? The answer is not very. They are going to be upset I had them arrested. This makes their testimony unpredictable, which makes calling them as witness a dice roll at best.

I want a cooperative witness or none at all.

I imagine this phenomena has to be frustrating for the State too. My murder trial in April is a perfect example. 2 of the State's witnesses changed their story before the trial began somewhat in the favor of the defense. The State only called 1 of them but impeached her with her grand jury testimony. It's never a good thing to have to impeach your own witness.

But to the State's credit, they tied up the impeachment in closing. They told the jury that her grand jury testimony was accurate. The State argued she changed her testimony at trial because of the unwritten rule about testifying in court. I countered by offering that at some point the witness lied under oath, thus the jury should discard all of it and find her not credible.

In Chicago just being in the wrong place at the wrong time can get you killed. Some feel it's better not to give anyone a reason to kill you, thus the courtroom avoidance.

I would be lying if I claimed not to understand this thinking. It's rough out there.



  1. Crazy enough this motto is almost everywhere across the United States where there are gangs,violence and justice..."Snitches get stitches," "Snitches get dumped in ditches" all kinds of nonsense, however my question to all of this madness is,what happens to the witness who shows up to court to adamantly lie about the circumstances of the offense/case just to rid the streets or society of their enemy? Is that that person labeled a snitch? How is this person viewed in light of the unwritten law? Strange how somethings work...Great post,thanks for sharing

  2. Thanks for the comment. I am dealing with the scenario you described. A few people are trying to put a really bad case on my client. It's frustrating. But I have one advantage: I know they're not telling the truth. I just have to make sure it's obvious when they testify.


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