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Witness shielding denied in the Trayvon Martin/ George Zimmerman case

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Attorney Jason Chan

267 North Beacon Street, Suite 3
Boston MA 01235


Phone: 781-343-1DUI (781-343-1384)
Fax: 617-226-7986

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.

Sources:

Zimmerman hearing heats up as lawyers spar, by Tom Winter and James Novograd, U.S. News on NBCNews.com June 5, 2013


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