BUFFALO, N.Y. (WIVB) – Defense attorneys claim the playing field is not level in criminal cases in our state because they don’t know the identities of the prosecution witnesses until the trial begins.
But prosecutors say the safety of those witnesses would be compromised if their identities are revealed. Erie County District Attorney Frank Sedita provided two recent examples on Friday.
After Eugene Lawrence Sr. threatened to kill his estranged wife and their seven children, he was arrested and later convicted of illegally possessing a weapon. But prosecutors say while in the Erie County Holding Center, Lawrence intimidated witnesses by phone and even made open threats against the Assistant District Attorneys who were on his case, calling them “white witches.”
This is an excerpt obtained by News 4:
“These people think I’m stupid. I am coming back at their a**. They think I’m just going to do the time and let it go. They stupid as hell. They better read my record. I don’t forget. I don’t forget s***,” Lawrence is heard saying.
Sedita said, “He knows that we’re monitoring those conversations, and so he’s expressing his threats on his phone calls how he’s going to get the prosecution team.”
David McKithen of Buffalo used Facebook to intimidate witnesses by having their grand jury testimony, which had been provided to his attorney, posted on the social network, labeling them as snitches.
“His famous signature line was: “If nobody talks, everybody walks,”” Sedita said.
The District Attorney says witness intimidation is a growing problem and now he is fighting an attempt in the New York Senate to allow defense attorneys to have the names, addresses and phone numbers of prosecution witnesses, even in the cases involving violent criminal acts.
Sedita said, “Where you live with your family. If we have to do that soon after these thugs are arrested, when it comes to the prosecution of violent felony cases, I will be out of business, because nobody will cooperate.”
News 4 Legal Analyst Terry Connors, a defense attorney, says a defendant has the right to know in advance who is testifying against him, and why.
“You don’t learn the identity of witnesses in the state system until on or about jury selection, so what preparation do you have to do background information, to do collateral searches on the individuals, to go out and interview the individuals, to speak to them? Why should you be deprived of that right?” Connors said.
He says the proposed law would allow for the protection of witnesses if prosecutors can prove there may be a safety issue involved.
But Sedita believes it would have a chilling effect on people who might have been willing to testify.