A Court Cannot Exclude a Defendant From a Hearing Regarding Threats to a Witness.

2d dept

In People v Williams, 2015 NY Slip Op 00916, the Second Department overturned a Murder conviction where the Court excluded the defendant from a hearing regarding the availability of a witness.

In Williams, the defendant was accused of shooting dead a man he was earlier observed arguing with. There was an eye witness to the event want knew both the defendant and the victim who identified the defendant at a line-up, and also gave a sworn statement to the District Attorney on video and in the Grand Jury.

The witness refused to testify at the trial, claiming that she had been threatened by a person she knew as an associate of the defendant.

Under the Sixth Amendment to the United States Constitution, the Defendant has a right to confront the witnesses against him. However, if there is prior sworn statements made by a witness and the defendant, through his own actions makes the witness unavailable, he forfeits that right of confrontation. For example, if a witness is killed by a defendant, his or her recorded prior testimony can be introduced into evidence as the unavailability of the witness was procured by the defendant’s conduct.

In this case, the question was if the defendant, through the conduct of his alleged associate made the witness “practically” unavailable, meaning that while she could actually be called as a witness because the government has the power to compel her testimony, she would be practically unavailable because she would be unwilling to testify because of the threats against her safety and that of her family.

The issued presented here, was if the defendant had a right to be present during this hearing, and the Second Department ruled that he did have that right. At the time of the hearing, the hearing court made the defendant sit in a cell outside of the view of the witness, but had audio provided so that he could hear the testimony. However, he was in a different room than his lawyer and unable to participate or assist his lawyer in questioning the witness. This procedure was found to violate the defendant’s rights to “meaningful participation in the proceedings.” As a result, the conviction was overturned and the case sent back to the trial Court for a new trial.

Read the original decision here.
People v Williams

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