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Obscure court rule pushed to forefront at forums on witness protection

The agreement between the St. Louis County Family Court and the Justice Department, almost a year and a half in the making, is aimed at correcting violations in young people's due process and harsher treatment directed at black children.
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Prosecutors in the city of St. Louis are taking their push to protect witness information to the public.

The circuit attorney's office is holding a community forum Wednesday night at the headquarters of the local branch of the NAACP to "talk about how important the participation of victims and witnesses is in the criminal justice system and how we all play a role in supporting them." But it's nearly a guarantee that an usually obscure state Supreme Court rule will come up.

For years, Jennifer Joyce, the circuit attorney, has resisted giving defense attorneys the addresses and other identifying information of victims and witnesses, out of fear they'll end up in the hands of defendants. 

A St. Louis judge, Michael Mullen, recently ordered her to do so in about 150 cases, based on his interpretation of Supreme Court Rule 25.03, which governs what information prosecutors must turn over to the defense without a court order. 

In response, Joyce's office planned a series of forums on the state of witness protection in St. Louis.

"It's not our intention to frighten people by talking about this information," Joyce said. "The victims and witnesses have the right to know that this is the rule we're operating under now, and that we're fighting to have the rule changed."

Attendees at the forum will be asked to contact their state legislators and the Missouri Supreme Court about changing the rule.

Mary Fox, the lead trial public defender in the city, called the suggestion that defense attorneys would inappropriately disclose the information "appalling."

"We are officers of the court, and we are following the court's rules concerning discovery, and we will continue to follow the court's rules concerning discovery," she said. "We want that information for one thing, and one thing only, and that’s to adequately represent our clients."

Fox filed suit last year to make the circuit attorney’s office to follow the disclosure rule on a regular basis. Right now, she has to fight for the information on a case-by-case basis.

The meeting starts at 6:30 p.m. at 4811 Delmar Blvd.

Follow Rachel Lippmann on Twitter: @rlippmann

Rachel is the justice correspondent at St. Louis Public Radio.

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