Pa. affords reluctant witnesses little protection
Few legal protections exist for reluctant witnesses in criminal cases when authorities want to secure their testimony, experts say.
The case of a Penn Hills witness trying to avoid testifying against a man accused in the killing of a police officer proved that this week, advocates said.
"Unfortunately, there are times when the judicial system revictimizes victims," said Kristy Dyroff, a spokeswoman for the National Organization for Victim Assistance in Alexandria, Va. "I don't think that's anyone's intention or goal, but the process does that at times."
Allegheny County Judge Kevin G. Sasinoski on Wednesday put the lone witness in the fatal 2009 shooting of Penn Hills police Officer Michael Crawshaw behind bars until trial begins next month.
U.S. marshals late Tuesday detained Lamar Jay, 28, on a material-witness warrant. Prosecutors were seeking Jay to testify at the double-murder trial of Ronald Robinson, and Sasinoski on Monday delayed the trial when Jay failed to appear. The judge sent him to jail until the Nov. 26 trial because he is a flight risk. Jay missed numerous meetings with detectives in the case.
Legal experts called the use of material-witness warrants uncommon and used only in the most "extreme" cases. Some questioned whether Jay's case qualifies as extreme.
"The cases in which the material-witness statutes are most often used is when the witness said, ‘I'm not coming,' or flees or avoids subpoena or he's about to fly off to another country," said David Rudovsky, a senior fellow at the University of Pennsylvania law school in Philadelphia.
Although some states have laws protecting witnesses, Pennsylvania does not. In March, U.S. Reps. Trent Franks, R-Ariz., and Jim Costa, D-Calif., proposed an amendment to the Constitution that would give victims and affected witnesses certain rights, such as the right to be heard at public proceedings, and require courts to consider their safety.
Dyroff said jailing witnesses and victims sets a precedent.
"You never want something like this to discourage whether witnesses to future crimes come forward," she said.
It remains unclear whether the use of material-witness warrants is constitutional under the Fourth Amendment, said University of Pittsburgh law professor John Burkoff. The Supreme Court upheld a warrant last year in a case that alleged former U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft directed prosecutors to use the warrants to detain terrorism-related suspects.
"In that case, a majority of the court made clear when and how a warrant could be used, although its constitutionality was not before the court," Burkoff said. "Nevertheless, they should be used sparingly."
Mike Manko, a spokesman for the District Attorney's Office, estimated the office requests about 20 such warrants a year, all for homicide and gun-related cases. That's a tiny fraction of the 17,000 criminal cases it prosecutes annually.
Robinson, 35, of Homewood is in jail awaiting trial on charges he killed Danyal Morton, 40, of Penn Hills and Crawshaw, 32, on Dec. 6, 2009.
Jay, Morton's roommate in 2009, testified at a preliminary hearing that he saw Robinson enter the house and go upstairs to confront Morton about a $500 drug debt before he heard gunfire and found Morton dead.
Police said Robinson fired an AK-47 at Crawshaw, the first officer to respond to the shooting, striking him several times as he sat in his patrol car.
Adam Brandolph is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-391-0927 or email@example.com.
Show commenting policy
TribLive commenting policy
You are solely responsible for your comments and by using TribLive.com you agree to our Terms of Service.
We moderate comments. Our goal is to provide substantive commentary for a general readership. By screening submissions, we provide a space where readers can share intelligent and informed commentary that enhances the quality of our news and information.
While most comments will be posted if they are on-topic and not abusive, moderating decisions are subjective. We will make them as carefully and consistently as we can. Because of the volume of reader comments, we cannot review individual moderation decisions with readers.
We value thoughtful comments representing a range of views that make their point quickly and politely. We make an effort to protect discussions from repeated comments either by the same reader or different readers.
We follow the same standards for taste as the daily newspaper. A few things we won't tolerate: personal attacks, obscenity, vulgarity, profanity (including expletives and letters followed by dashes), commercial promotion, impersonations, incoherence, proselytizing and SHOUTING. Don't include URLs to Web sites.
We do not edit comments. They are either approved or deleted. We reserve the right to edit a comment that is quoted or excerpted in an article. In this case, we may fix spelling and punctuation.
We welcome strong opinions and criticism of our work, but we don't want comments to become bogged down with discussions of our policies and we will moderate accordingly.
We appreciate it when readers and people quoted in articles or blog posts point out errors of fact or emphasis and will investigate all assertions. But these suggestions should be sent via e-mail. To avoid distracting other readers, we won't publish comments that suggest a correction. Instead, corrections will be made in a blog post or in an article.
- DeVry shift to online classes prompts closing of Pittsburgh campus
- Rossi: Crosby, Malkin didn’t sign on for this
- Penguins’ Malkin: ‘We’re not a championship team’
- Cole shuts down Diamondbacks as Pirates open road trip with victory
- Penguins eliminated with Game 5 overtime loss to Rangers
- Connellsville to host job fair
- Couple hope Connellsville shop will attract trail users
- Fleury valiant in defeat
- Trail preparation commences in Connellsville
- Pitt introduces Barnes as athletic director
- Rangers’ defensive plan against Penguins was unwavering