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While the trial of Irish mob boss Whitey Bulger ended in a conviction for extortion, money laundering, drug dealing and weapons possession, the ramifications of his crime ring have yet to cease. The grand jury recently charged William Camuti, an alleged ally of Whitey Bulger, with the murder of extortion victim Stephen Rakes.
Details of the Murder
According to the authorities, William Camuti arranged a business meeting at a Waltham McDonalds with Stephen Rakes on July 16. Therein, Camuti presented Rakes with a cup of McDonalds iced coffee, which he had laced with two teaspoons of potassium cyanide. The poison acts against the body’s ability to process oxygen intakes. Accordingly, Rakes was soon to become unconscious. Camuti sent two emails inquiring about the price of potassium cyanide in the days before Rakes’ death. Police investigation revealed that Rakes took a sip of the coffee and thought it tasted too bitter. Nevertheless, he remained in Camuti’s car and was driven around Waltham, Woburn, Burlington and Lincoln until he eventually died. A jogger found Rakes’ lifeless body in a wooded area in Lincoln the next day, and alerted authorities.
Connection to Whitey Bulger
Stephen Rakes attended Whitey Bulger’s trial on the same day as his meeting with William Camuti. Rakes is just one of the many victims of Bulger’s extortion schemes. Allegedly, Rakes hoped to be on the witness stand in the Bulger trial, but he was dropped from the witness list shortly before the trial. Surveillance videos at the courthouse show Rakes wearing the same clothes he was found in by authorities the next day. Yet, authorities have not linked Rakes’ death to the murder trial. Prosecutors state that Camuti acted alone, not on behalf of Whitey Bulger, in order to settle some debts with Rakes.
Camuti Tried to Take His Own Life
As police investigation progressed, William Camuti seemed to break under the pressure. On July 20th, before his indictment, Camuti cut his wrists in his Sudbury apartment. While Camuti’s lawyer Stanley Norkunas called the incident a “psychiatric episode,” Camuti was clearly impacted by the repercussions of his admission.
William Camuti’s Punishment Under Massachusetts Law
Massachusetts Law Chapter 265, Section 28 states that “whoever mingles poison with food, drink or medicine with intent to kill or injure another person” is liable to life in prison or any term of years.” This punishment, coupled with Camuti’s admission of intent, is thus left to the discretion of the court. Massachusetts Law Chapter 265 Section 2 punishes first degree murder (deliberate and premeditated) with life in prison. Coupled with the poisoning charge, Camuti’s murder charge will most likely result in life in prison for the Sudbury resident.
Prison fugitive John McCluskey was charged with the murder of Gary and Linda Haas, both 61 years old and on their yearly trip to Colorado. McCluskey shot them, charred their bodies and their trailer, and escaped in their pickup truck along with his two accomplices. McCluskey was serving 15 years in Arizona prison for second-degree murder, aggravated assault, and discharge of a firearm. In 2010, McCluskey and fellow inmate Tracy Province escaped from prison with the help of McCluskey’s fiance (and cousin) Casslyn Welch. On August 2, 2010, McCluskey, Welsh and Province met with their victims at a Texas-New Mexico state line highway stop. The Haas couple had been married for over 40 years and they were on their annual trip from their home in Oklahoma to Colorado in their pickup truck and tractor-trailer. On August 2, McCluskey, Welsh and Province forced the couple to drive to Interstate 40, pushed them into a remote location at gunpoint, and then shot them inside their trailer. Then, McCluskey and his accomplices got rid of the bodies by placing them into the trailer and setting it on fire. Only two days later, a ranch worker discovered the remains of the trailer:skull fragments, eyeglass frames, and Mrs. Haas‘s wedding ring. Authorities were contacted immediately, and the three criminals were captured within three weeks of the nationwide search.
The Prosecution’s Take on the Case and Their Charges Against McCluskey
Prosecutors have been clear on their stance, and sought the capital punishment for McCluskey after examining the evidence in the case. According to prosecutor Greg Fouratt, ultimately this case is about the targeting, the carjacking, the shooting to death and the incineration of a husband and wife. The prosecution’s case is built around the criminals’ cruel murder of two defenseless retirees for their pickup truck. Fouratt is confident that the 50 witnesses and at least 100 exhibits accumulated by the prosecution will convict McCluskey for his crimes.. The prosecution will weave a story about the August 2 meeting between an innocent older couple and a group of murderous prison escapees in order to tear at the jury’s emotions. The prosecution, however, is unafraid to puncture the prosecution’s evidence.
The Defense Is Unafraid To Talk About The Case
Despite the heavy amount of firsthand evidence against McCluskey from the accomplices themselves, defense attorney Michael Burt is confident about his client’s case. Burt stated that the prosecution’s heaviest evidence comes from unreliable sources. McCluskey’s fellow inmate Tracy Province has a history of violent crimes and drug abuse, while McCluskey’s fiancée allegedly lied to the investigators on multiple occasions. Furthermore, both accomplices already made deals with the prosecution enabling them to escape the death penalty, and thus might have a higher interest in saving themselves than being sincere. Nevertheless, McCluskey was arrested wearing Gary Haas’ baseball cap, and evidence as seemingly minute may sway the jury against his case.
The Death Penalty in McCluskey’s Case
The defense is confident that the government will be unable to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that McCluskey is guilty. Accordingly, the defense is avoiding the death penalty and stating that the prosecution has no proof that McCluskey shot the Haas couple. According to the U.S. Supreme Court, the Eighth Amendment protects against cruel and unusual punishment and thus compels the jury to determine a penalty that is proportional to the crime. In this case, McCluskey not only shot both Gary and Linda Haas, but he also intentionally burned their trailer to get rid of evidence. In a 2002 Ring v. Arizona decision, the Supreme Court ruled that a jury must find an aggravating factor that will increase the culpability for a criminal act; only then can the judge impose the death penalty rather than a lesser punishment. The McCluskey trial is expected to go on for up to four months of arduous jury work in order to observe the examinations and cross-examinations requisite for McCluskey’s conviction of capital murder (or a lesser punishment if the defense can persuade the jury). Seemingly pulled out of a crime novel, the McCluskey case is one that will resonate with the jury. The murder of two defenseless grandparents compelled media attention and provoked a national visceral response. Accordingly, this would not only be a feat for the prosecution but also a public policy victory.
Life in prison or the death penalty? Convicted killer Jodi Arias and those following her trial will have to wait at least a few more weeks to learn her fate. The judge presiding over the trial, Judge Sherry Stephens, has just delayed setting the retrial date until mid-September. The retrial will focus on the sole issue of whether Arias should get the death penalty or life in prison. According to the Boston Herald, Judge Stephens wants to provide prosecutors an opportunity to respond to last minute defense motions.
On May 8th, an Arizona jury convicted Jodi Arias of first-degree murder in the stabbing and shooting death of Travis Alexander. Arias claimed that she killed the Mormon businessman in self-defense. However, prosecutors alleged that it was premeditated murder. They argued that Arias killed Alexander in a jealous rage after learning that he wanted to end their affair and go to Mexico with another woman. The jury ultimately believed the prosecution and unanimously found Arias guilty of murder. In capital cases — crimes where the death penalty is possible – each member of the jury must also agree on the sentence. Here the failure of the Arias jury to reach a unanimous decision about the death penalty resulted in a hung jury. Arias now await a new trial with a new jury seated solely to decide her fate — life in prison or the death penalty.
What Factors Does A Jury Consider In Death Penalty Cases?
The first determination a jury must make in capital cases is whether a particular defendant is eligible for the death penalty. This conclusion occurs at the end of the trial and before sentencing. In most states, including Arizona where this trial occurred, aggravating factors must exist to warrant the death penalty. Aggravating factors include any condition, or event relating to crime, that adds to the “wrongfulness” of a crime or increase its harm.
Here, the decision that Arias is eligible for the death penalty has already been made. The first jury determined that Arias was “especially cruel” in the manner that she killed Alexander. Evidence showed that Arias stabbed Alexander 27 times, slashed his throat, and shot him in the head. Prosecutors argued that Alexander suffered mental, emotional, and physical anguish during the bloody attack and that Arias knew she was causing him to suffer.
Judge Sherry Stephens has denied Arias attorney’s motion to set aside this finding. As a result, the death penalty remains a possibility for her.
The Death Penalty Process: The Sentencing Phase
Once a jury finds that a person is “eligible” for the death penalty, the case moves on to the sentencing phase. This portion of the trial is now in limbo in the Arias trial. In the sentencing phase, a defendant’s attorney and family members can present “mitigating arguments and factors” to spare someone’s life. Mitigating factors include any fact, condition, or event that makes the death penalty less appropriate as a punishment. Rather than excusing a crime, the purpose of these arguments is to reduce the amount of blame a jury feels a defendant deserves.
The family members of the victim may also speak. These statements can be very influential in capital cases and weigh heavily on the minds of jurors.
After both sides have had an opportunity to present all aggravating and mitigating factors to the court, a jury (or sometimes a judge) will then determine the defendant’s fate.
In this instance, if the second jury fails to reach a unanimous decision the death penalty would automatically be removed from consideration. It will then be up to Judge Sherry Stevens to determine whether Arias will spend her entire life behind bars or be eligible for release after 25 years.
Judge Stephens hopes to set the date for the re-trial in September. In the meantime, Arias’ fate remains unknown.
Herbert and Catherine Schaible, the now infamous Pennsylvania couple who denied their second child medical care in lieu of prayer, are getting enormous media attention. The couple belongs to a fundamentalist Christian church. Their story has also brought to the forefront far too many other cases of abuse and death resulting from this “faith-based healing.” Due to this alarming trend, courts are taking a less tolerant stand than ever before. At the base of this issue is a potential conflict between freedom of religion and child protection.
The Schaibles have been charged with murder for the death of their 8-month-old son
The Schaibles refused medical treatment for their 8-month-old son and he died from treatable bacterial pneumonia. Like many others, their church preaches that use of modern medicine is a sin. At the time of the 8-month-old’s death, Herbert and Catherine were already on probation as a result of the previous death of their 2-year-old from pneumonia only four years ago.
The Schaibles were only convicted of involuntary manslaughter in 2009 after the death of their first son. But this time, they will stand trial for murder. The terms of their probation required that they provide immediate medical care for their other children as needed. According to Judge Benjamin Lerner:
[The Schaibles] learned in the worst possible way…exactly what these symptoms could lead to in a child, especially a young child, if not medically cared for. . . .We’ve been here before…under strikingly similar circumstances.
The Schaibles’ only response was “[w]e tried to fight the devil, but in the end the devil won.” Unfortunately, the Schaibles are not alone in their beliefs.
Child deaths due to denial of medical care based on religious beliefs goes back centuries
One of the earliest cases of death as a result of faith-based healing was People v. Pierson (1903). A 16-month-old girl died from pneumonia after her parents refused to call a physician because their church taught that religion was the cure for disease. The father was convicted of only a misdemeanor for failing to provide medical care for a dependent minor. Since 1903, the number of these faith-based deaths has skyrocketed.
Faith-based healing deaths are growing to epidemic proportions
Whether as a result of more fundamentalist type religious groups sprouting up, or merely the increase in reporting and media attention, it seems that these types of deaths are becoming more and more common. For example, in 1991, eight children in Pennsylvania died in a measles outbreak. The families of all of these children were members of the same church. In 2011, an Oregon couple was sentenced to six years for the death of their premature newborn. He was born at home and died from complications. Another Oregon couple was sentenced to 16 months in prison in 2010 after their 16-year-old son died from a preventable blockage in his urinary tract. A woman in Auburn, Alabama was charged with criminal negligent homicide in 2008, when her 17-year-old son died from pneumonia. She also refused to seek medical treatment because of her religious beliefs.
In 1998, a study conducted by Seth Asser, MD, showed that of the 140 child deaths in the U.S. where medical treatment was denied by the parents, 90% of those children would have lived if they had received regular medical care.
An increase in criminal cases involving faith-based healing pits religious freedom against child protection
These regrettable cases have driven many to seek changes in laws that protect parents who claim religious beliefs as a defense. Currently, at least 30 states allow religious immunity in some form. But recent rulings are demonstrating that courts are taking religious-based neglect more seriously. For example, Oregon recently passed a law that precludes the defense of faith healing to murder charges.
Massachusetts has done the same. In 1993, a Massachusetts court exempted the parents of a child who died after medical care from criminal charges based on religious grounds. In response to that ruling, a law was enacted in Massachusetts requiring all parents to seek appropriate medical care for their children. Ultimately, it seems the purpose of these new laws and court rulings is not to deny parents freedom of religion. As Dr. James Lace, an Oregon pediatrician, stated: “We’re not going after religion or people’s rights to go to church. We’re going after neglect. . . . [These children] are dying of simple diseases that you can treat.” Until more states do away with the religious exemption more children will die from easily treatable diseases.
Cold cases, unsolved murders, and disappearances wreak havoc on the emotions of the families left behind. Recently, two of Massachusetts’ most notorious “cold cases” were solved, ending decades long quests by detectives and the families to determine who was responsible for these brutal crimes.
James “Jamie” Lusher – Mystery Solved Via Confession
The grieving family of James “Jamie” Lusher will finally get some closure. On November 6, 1992 the 16-year-old Westfield boy hopped on his bike and started on his way to a relative’s home. The boy never arrived and his body was never found, leaving his family searching for answers for decades.
An intensive search of the area followed, with police initially believing Lusher was hiding and afraid to come home. However, earlier this month convicted child serial killer Lewis Lent confessed to killing the teen and dumping his body in a pond. According to authorities, prosecutors agreed not to prosecute Lent for Lusher’s murder in exchange for his confession.
Lent is currently serving life in prison without the possibility of parole for the murders of two other children including the murder and kidnapping of a 12 year-old Pittsfield boy and a 12-year-old Frankfort, N.Y. girl.
While the family will not have the opportunity to face Lent in a trial, they will finally achieve the closure they have been denied. As stated by the father of Jamie “My closure is finding my son … I couldn’t care less what happens to Lewis Lent. He can rot in hell, I don’t care.”
Mary Sullivan – Mystery Solved Via Science
Another high-profile cold case has just been solved thanks to advances in science.
The “Boston Strangler” – allegedly responsible for at least 13 deaths from 1962-1964 – has just been conclusively linked to the murder of 19-year-old Mary Sullivan. In 1967 Anthony DeSalvo, a convicted rapist, claimed he was the notorious “Strangler.” He confessed to Sullivan’s death as well as 11 others while in jail. However, he recanted his confession and was never convicted. He died in 1974 in a prison fight before police had the technology to test the DNA samples taken at the scene of the crime.
Massachusetts’s police continued their attempts to link DeSalvo to Sullivan’s death over the last several decades, but the available technology couldn’t conclusively identify DeSalvo as the murderer.
However, scientific advances in the use of DNA testing and technology have changed everything. Now it is possible to test decades old DNA. As a result, in July, officials exhumed DeSalvo’s body. Comparing DeSalvo’s remains -including a 6-inch piece of DeSalvo’s femur, three of his teeth and tissue samples – with evidence collected from the crime scene, detectives confirmed him as Sullivan’s killer.
While an obvious benefit to solving cold cases is to provide closure and justice to families who have waited decades for answers, it also benefits wrongfully accused and convicted criminal defendants who may be finally able to clear their names.
Overview of Hernandez’ Developing Case
Patriots tight end Aaron Hernandez was arrested and charged with the murder of semi-professional football player Odin Lloyd. The two men met through Hernandez’ fiancée Shayanna Jenkins, whose sister was Lloyd’s girlfriend. The case is intriguing not only because of Hernandez’ high-profile, but also because of the men’s friendship prior to Lloyd’s passing.
According to the prosecution, on June 14 Odin Lloyd and Aaron Hernandez had a heated argument at a bar. Hernandez did not approve of Lloyd’s conversation with a group of unidentified men, and they got into a verbal altercation. The prosecution is building a case around the allegation that Hernandez murdered Lloyd in revenge three days later.
On June 17, the night of the incident, victim Odin Lloyd had been text messaging, and intended to meet up with, Hernandez in order to return the car he had borrowed from the football player. At 12:22 am, Lloyd sent Hernandez the text“we still on” in order to confirm their meeting.
Carlos Ortiz and Ernest Wallace, the football player’s friends, joined Hernandez on the night of June 17, and presumably are firsthand witnesses of the alleged murder. Around 1:00 am three men were recorded by video cameras around Hernandez’ residence as they left together in a car, allegedly toward the abandoned industrial park where the intended to meet with Lloyd. At 3:22, Lloyd sent atext message to his sister informing her that he was going to meet up with Hernandez, implying that he sensed that there would be a degree of hostility between the two. Around 3:25, workers heard three gunshots coming from the industrial area, and the sound of a departing vehicle. Around 3:30, the three men were recorded by the surveillance camera as they returned to Hernandez’ residence.
Prosecution Theories and Inconsistencies
Both Ortiz and Wallace turned themselves in after Hernandez was charged, and according to court documents Ortiz testified that Wallace told him he saw Hernandez murder Lloyd. In a court of law, Ortiz’ testimony would be considered hearsay because he did not see Hernandez murder Lloyd with his own eyes. However, it is clear that Ortiz is willing to cooperate with the investigation.
The football player’s case presents a number of inconsistencies. First, Hernandez’ wife claimed that she went to bed around 9:00 pm, after returning from dinner with her husband. However, the home surveillance cameras captured her standing near the three men when they were about to leave the premises.
Furthermore, Hernandez was unresponsive when police investigators arrived at his home, tried to search the residence, and told him about Lloyd’s death. Hernandez’ fiancée burst into tears, while Hernandez shut the door in the police officers’ face and returned with an attorney’s business card[AO6] . The football player’s reaction was a trigger for the police, since he and Lloyd had been friends for over a year, and their respective girlfriends were sisters.
Aaron Hernandez and OJ Simpson Have More in Common than Football
Both players were at the top of their fame when their respective trials occurred; Hernandez had recently been signed for a $40 million dollar contract as a tight end for the New England Patriots. Are the two men just “players of questionable character,” or is there more to the comparison between their lives.
First, Hernandez seems to have done a poor job of covering his tracks, and his attorneys are facing a difficult defense when surveillance cameras and witness reports are painting a vivid picture of the murder.
Second, OJ was wildly dependent upon his defense attorneys, and ultimately benefited from the media frenzy that surrounded his case. It’s hard to forget Johnnie Cochran’s quote “if the glove doesn’t fit, you must acquit.” This case, however, lacks the sensationalism that the OJ trial survived on. Here, the corroborated and physical evidence against Hernandez is hard to deny. Even though they may both be high-profile football players charged with murder, Hernandez might not get as lucky as OJ in terms of acquittal.
Before the George Zimmerman trial began, there was eager speculation about whether Zimmerman, who claimed self-defense in the killing of Trayvon Martin, would avail himself of Florida’s “Stand Your Ground” law. Supporters on both sides of the issue ranted about the appropriateness of the law. Yet, surprisingly, Zimmerman and his attorney ultimately waived his right to a pretrial immunity hearing on that basis.
Florida’s “Stand Your Ground” law allows the use of deadly force as long as the defendant can prove the following factors:
- Defendant was not engaged in an unlawful activity.
- Defendant is being attacked in a place he has a right to be.
- Defendant reasonably believes his life and safety is in danger as a result of an overt act or perceived threat committed by someone else toward him.
Several states have a similar statute on their books, as well.
What was the long-standing “self-defense” law changed to “stand your ground?”
Individuals have always had the right to use deadly force in the face of an imminent threat of danger. However, the law only protected people after they had “used all reasonable means to avoid the danger.” When Florida changed its self-defense statute in 2005, the “duty to retreat” language was removed. The purpose of this change was to ensure that no one “be required to needlessly retreat in the face of intrusion or attack.” In essence, the law allows people to defend themselves without first trying to flee.
Before this change, only a person in his or her “castle” had no duty to retreat before using deadly force. According to Florida case law, a person’s “castle” was limited to his or her home and workplace. One rationale behind the “Stand Your Ground” law was to extend the definition of “castle” beyond a person’s home or workplace. Now, your “castle” is essentially anywhere you have a right to be.
What effect has the “stand your ground” law had on crime?
Many argue that this change has more to do with allowing vigilantes to evade liability, than protecting those whose lives are really in danger. In fact, this law was avidly supported by the National Rifle Association and has been labeled by some as the “kill at will” statute.
The death statistics in Florida, since the passing of the “Stand Your Ground” law are telling. According to one article, Florida averaged 12 “justifiable homicide” deaths each year between 2000 and 2004. After “Stand your Ground” was passed in 2005, the number of “justifiable” deaths has nearly tripled to an average of 35 a year. These statistics do not bode well for proponents of the law.
Was waiving the immunity hearing a good tactical move for Zimmerman?
Florida’s statute allows individuals asserting the “Stand Your Ground” defense to claim immunity from criminal prosecution and civil actions. In that situation, the judge would have sole discretion in deciding if Zimmerman is immune from prosecution. The hearing would also allow the prosecution to discover the defense’s evidence and trial theories before trial. Presumably, Zimmerman’s attorney’s strategy was to rob the prosecution of a preview, which would have undoubtedly helped in preparing the State’s case against Zimmerman. This may have been a smart move, since, Zimmerman can still raise the issue of immunity later in the trial. The trial begins its second week and is expected to last a month.
The trial for one of the nation’s most wanted fugitives just began in Boston. James “Whitey” Bulger – the alleged Winter Hill Gang leader – eluded law enforcement for decades. According to reports, he fled Boston in 1994 and was captured 17 years later living in Santa Monica, California.
Described as a modern day Robin Hood, Bulger initially achieved prominence in south Boston by helping out his working class neighbors while keeping drug dealers at bay. Some even thought of him as a “near-mythical figure…” While revered by some, others reportedly saw a different side to Bulger – that of a cold-blooded killer. Law enforcement alleges that Bulger was a hardened mob-boss, and is implicated in the murders of 19 people over the course of 30 years.
Bulger is on trial as the result of a 32-count racketeering (RICO) indictment, including his involvement in the 19 murders.
RICO is a federal charge of racketeering, commonly used in organized crime and mob trials. It is broadly defined as the act of operating an illegal business or scheme for profit, perpetrated by a structured group.
Racketeering can involve several different criminal acts such as murder, fraud, illegal gambling, money laundering or prostitution. Often, mob bosses or gang leaders can be found guilty of racketeering charges for crimes they ordered. This means someone may be found guilty of murder even if they weren’t the one who actually committed the act.
Here Bulger’s alleged illegal actions include:
•19 counts of murder
•Conspiracy to commit murder
•Conspiracy to commit extortion
For the prosecution to prove Bulger is guilty of racketeering, the government must convince a jury beyond a reasonable doubt that Bulger was responsible for at least one of these crimes. If convicted, Bulger could face life imprisonment or even the death penalty.
The prosecution also alleges that Bulger was an FBI informant – a claim that Bulger fervently denies. On Monday, June 24, a federal agent testified that Bulger [Informant 1544] provided details concerning the Mafia, tips in murders and other insider information leading to imprisonment for others.
While the defense strategy will be revealed over the next weeks and months of the trial, it is likely that Bulger’s criminal defense attorneys will attack the credibility of the witnesses testifying against Bulger. If the jurors fail to believe the prosecution’s witnesses, then the government won’t have met its burden to show Bulger’s guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.
One of the star witnesses against Bulger is Johnny Martorano, a man who has confessed to killing 20 people. As the result of a plea agreement, Martorano served only 14 years in jail. In a deal with the government to testify against Bulger, he was released from jail after serving only 12.
Can the jury trust the testimony of a convicted killer? Martorano has clearly benefited from agreeing to testify against Bulger. He [Martorano] has also sold the film rights to his life story, as well as collaborated on a book entitled Hitman. It appears that Martorano has nothing to lose by testifying against Bulger, which weakens his credibility.
In fact, another witness for the prosecution admitted during cross-examination that inmates know they can get “extraordinary benefits” if they agree to testify for the prosecution. As is often the case in mob trials, several of the other witnesses for the prosecution have credibility issues and are linked to criminal activity.
Defending Bulger’s Reputation
The defense is also seeking to lift the current gag order, preventing Bulger’s attorneys from speaking to the media. Bulger’s team wants to be able to fight back in the press and on television, which has primarily portrayed Bulger in a negative light. Too often, the public forms an opinion about a criminal defendant’s guilt or innocence that is hard to shake, even if the defendant is eventually acquitted.
The Bulger trial is expected to last up to three months and will provide a glimpse into alleged mob life in the 1970s and 80s. Bulger has pleaded not guilty to all of the charges.
A Guide To The Trial Of James Whitey Bulger, BostonHerald.com June 18, 2013
Whitey Bulger’s 700-page FBI informant file discussed at trial; defense insists he wasn’t an informant, Boston.com June 24, 2013
Ex-FBI Agent to Testify Against Bulger, ABC News.com, June 24, 2013
Whitey Bulger Trial Enters 3rd Week; Here’s What You Need To Know, June 24, 2013 Huffington Post
The George Zimmerman/Trayvon Martin second-degree murder trial has just begun and it’s already raising several significant criminal law issues. How these matters are decided will affect not only this high-profile criminal trial, but may also impact local criminal trials around the country. One main concern is whether the witnesses to the incident should be shielded. Witness shielding is the practice of hiding the identity of witnesses from the public order to ensure their safety.
Zimmerman’s Criminal Defense Attorney Seeks To Shield 7 Defense Witnesses From Public View
Here George Zimmerman’s defense attorney, Mark O’Mara, sought to shield the identities of seven of the witnesses that the defense plans to call to testify. One of the witnesses reportedly is ready to testify about the fight between Zimmerman and Martin. In a pre-trial motion citing “personal concerns for their safety, “ O’Mara requested that the witnesses be allowed to testify behind a screen – allowing jurors to see them but not reporters. The judge denied the motion after it was objected to by both the prosecution and reporters.
The Right To Confront Witnesses Against You
Witness shielding is a controversial practice in criminal defense trials and is only allowed in very limited situations. The Sixth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution provides:
“In criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the right to a speedy and public trial, by an impartial jury of the State and district wherein the crime shall have been committed, which district shall have been previously ascertained by law, and to be informed of the nature and cause of the accusation; to be confronted with the witnesses against him; to have compulsory process for obtaining witnesses in his favor, and to have the Assistance of Counsel for his defense.”
The 6th amendment’s “confrontation clause” is based on the premise that people are less likely to lie when they are under oath and facing the accused. In layman’s terms, the “confrontation clause” requires that witnesses must testify face to face at trial. When a witness is “shielded,” an accused is denied that face-to-face interaction.
What Methods Are Used To Shield Witnesses?
Witness shielding typically occurs in one of three ways: Having the witness testify behind a screen so that he or she is only visible to the jurors; having video-taped testimony; or testifying via closed circuit television. Because of its potential constitutional impact, “witness shielding” is allowed in only limited circumstances.
One area where witness shielding is often discussed is in child sexual abuse trials. In sex crimes cases, criminal prosecutors may try to minimize the trauma of having young victims testify in court and facing their alleged abusers. However, even in these situations courts have disagreed over whether allowing shielding techniques violates a criminal defendant’s sixth amendment rights.
In other types of criminal cases, such as murder or other violent crimes, both prosecutors and criminal defense attorneys are concerned that their witnesses will face retribution if their identity is known. In these situations, criminal attorneys may suggest that witnesses use a pseudonym or wear a disguise. However, courts are split on whether keeping the identity of a witness anonymous violates a defendant’s rights. In fact even the Supreme Court of the United States has not even provided clear direction.
Unfortunately this issue creates difficulties for the criminal justice system and may affect a criminal defendant’s ability to get a fair trial.
Whether the witnesses in the Martin/Zimmerman murder trial will still come forward to testify about what they saw that fateful night and whether they will face consequences for doing so, will play out in the next several weeks and months as the second-degree murder trial continues.
Zimmerman hearing heats up as lawyers spar, by Tom Winter and James Novograd, U.S. News on NBCNews.com June 5, 2013
Major Nidal Hasan, an Army psychiatrist accused of killing 13 soldiers and injuring 32 people at Fort Hood army base, was recently permitted to represent himself in court. Hasan fired his attorney in 2009, and will advocate for his acquittal beginning on July 1st of this year.
Qualifications for self-representation
According to the Sixth Amendment, a criminal can waive the right to counsel and handle his case “pro se,” or on his own behalf. After the court informs the defendant of the advantages and disadvantages of self-representation, and he voluntarily, intelligently and knowingly waives said rights, he is permitted to represent himself in court. The law further mandates for a standby counsel for defendants who choose pro se representation.
Here, the court afforded Major Hasan counsel from the Army Trial Defense Service, but a rift quickly grew between Hasan and the attorneys when he expressed that he wanted to use the “defense of others” platform. Hasan is attempting to vindicate himself by explaining that he opened fire on the American soldiers at Fort Hood in order to protect Taliban leaders from harm. However, this may not have much standing in court because the Taliban was not in immediate or unlawful threat by the American soldiers. Since Hasan’s line of defense seems stilted, it is unlikely that he will benefit from self-representation.
Effects of an alleged murderer’s cross-examination of his living victims
If convicted, Major Nidal Hasan will be sentenced to a life in prison. Unfortunately, the lasting emotional impact on his victims is also set to last a lifetime. From a legal standpoint, permitting Hasan to represent himself at trial also implicates him in the cross-examination of witnesses in the case, here his surviving victims.
Hasan’s psychiatric skills and experience with soldiers will be an asset when he questions the witnesses. Accordingly, he might be more effective for his case than a court or military-appointed attorney because he will be able to identify the psychological strengths and weaknesses of his victims.
However, the opposite effect might occur; the victims might be so traumatized by their aggressor that they will be unwavering in their testimonies, and motivated to put Major Hasan in prison. The judge and jury might also feel more sympathetic toward the witnesses because they are forced to face their aggressor, and thus are more likely to have an emotional response to the questioning.
Since he lacks an attorney‘s legal experience, Hasan might unintentionally reveal the vulnerabilities of his case by failing to counter the witnesses’ accusations. Concurrently, he will be picked apart as a witness as well as a defendant, and he might be unable to handle the pressure of examination and cross-examination. If he falters under the pressure of his victims’ eyes, Hasan will single-handedly hurt his case.
Public policy impact of self-representation
The Supreme Court has stressed the importance of legal counsel in a criminal case, by stating, “a person accused of crime requires the guiding hand of counsel at every step in the proceedings against him.” Here, Hasan expressed his awareness of the legal policies behind legal counseling, but he stated he only wanted the “opinions” of the appointed attorneys.
From a public policy standpoint, the proliferation of self-representing parties might lead to more inept court proceedings. Even if the accused research the rhetoric and techniques typically used in trials, they are unlikely to have the legal experience to win their own cases. Furthermore, self-representation might cause a significantly tenser atmosphere in the courtroom if the accused is facing his victims.
One of the attributes of an attorney’s work is that there is little emotional rapport between him or her and the party that he or she is cross-examining. An attorney may seek an emotional response in order to support his case, but his job implies detachment from the parties, and fairness in the trial’s proceedings. However, a rapist or molester will visibly intimidate and debilitate the witness on the stand. He or she will remember the trauma suffered at the hands of the criminal, and the testimony might be emotionally charged and ultimately ineffective.