State appeals court says defense attorneys must get some witness information
Both prosecutors and defense attorneys in St. Louis are applauding an appeals court ruling outlining what information must be provided to defense attorneys in criminal trials.
For at least 10 years, Circuit Attorney Jennifer Joyce had routinely withheld the last-known addresses of victims of, and witnesses to crime, citing safety concerns. The public defender's office sued, saying the practice violated Missouri's court operating rules.
A three-judge appeals panel ruled on Tuesday that, while Joyce and her fellow prosecutors must turn over addresses, they are not required to provide details such as Social Security numbers, phone numbers or dates of birth. The court also refused Joyce's request to find the rule requiring disclosure unconstitutional.
"We’re not where we need to be yet, but this is a big step in the right direction for the safety of witnesses and victims," Joyce said.
Beth Orwick, the chief trial assistant at the circuit attorney's office, said it's important that she and her colleagues will be able to ask a judge to withhold addresses in certain cases.
"We have cases where there is evidence of people being threatened, of people being harmed, where people have had to move because of threats that were directly made to them just because they’re a victim or a witness of a crime," she said.
Mary Fox, the chief public defender in St. Louis, also applauded the ruling.
"The appeals court affirmed that for a trial to be fair, the defense has to be able to conduct its own independent investigation," Fox said. Getting the last-known address for a witness or a victim is a crucial part of that process, she said.
Tuesday's ruling covers 14 cases in which the circuit attorney's office withheld last-known addresses. Orwick said she hopes future rulings will clarify when prosecutors are allowed to not release addresses. She also said the office has not made a decision whether to appeal.
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