Murder Witnesses Can't Be Concealed

Friday, August 18th 2000, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

SAN FRANCISCO (AP) — Prosecutors cannot conceal the identities of essential witnesses in murder cases, even if identifying them would put them in danger, the California Supreme Court has ruled.

The unanimous decision Thursday, the high court's first on the issue, was a setback for Los Angeles County prosecutors who sought to withhold the names of three witnesses to a 1993 jailhouse killing.

Prosecutors said they feared the Mexican Mafia would have sought reprisals against the witnesses of the stabbing death of a Los Angeles County jail inmate.

``The witnesses get murdered. The witnesses get killed,'' Deputy District Attorney Brentford J. Ferreira said.

In overturning lower court concealment orders, Chief Justice Ronald M. George wrote that in limited circumstances names can be withheld prior to trial for witness safety, but never permanently.

``The trial court's order went beyond constitutional bounds in determining that ... the prosecution could withhold the identities of witnesses 1, 2, and 3 from the defense for the duration of the proceedings and have them testify anonymously at trial,'' George wrote.

Still, the chief justice wrote that it may be acceptable for endangered witnesses to testify in a closed courtroom. He added that witness identity may only be disclosed to defense attorneys and not to their clients ``as long as that order does not impermissibly impair defendants' right to confront and cross-examine the witnesses effectively at trial.''

The case arose after two of three men charged in the killing challenged Superior Court Judge Robert J. Perry's decision to allow the witnesses to testify anonymously. An appellate court upheld the decision and the trial has been on hold pending the high court's decision.

``There is no way you can investigate the case if you don't know who the witnesses are,'' said defense attorney Michael M. Crain, who represents one of the suspects.

The district attorney's office may request the high court to review its decision or may ask the U.S. Supreme Court to hear the case, Ferreira said. He declined to say whether the witnesses would testify if their identities were revealed.