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Refusal to ID witness led to dismissal of drug charges against Chambers

Rich Cholodofsky
| Monday, June 18, 2012, 1:03 a.m.

Charges against a man accused of dealing drugs were dropped in Westmoreland County after prosecutors refused to reveal the identity of the key witness, a confidential informant who has been used in as many as 100 cases.

In court documents filed Tuesday, Common Pleas Judge Richard E. McCormick Jr. said the informant's identity was a "fundamental requirement of fairness." He said it was essential for the defense to question the only eyewitness in the case.

The case involves drug charges filed last year against Charles R. Chambers, 34, of Penn Hills. McCormick dismissed the criminal charges last month. Now Westmoreland County prosecutors are appealing that ruling.

Prosecutors contend that the informant, who is part of the Attorney General's Witness Relocation Program, should remain anonymous.

According to court documents, the informant has helped in the prosecution of defendants throughout Pennsylvania, New York and other states.

Prosecutors contend that the safety of his relatives, who still live in the region, would be in jeopardy if his identity is revealed.

"This person was relocated for his safety," said Assistant District Attorney Judy Petrush.

The informant was the key witness against Chambers. Police contend the informant helped facilitate a drug buy in Arnold on Jan. 18, 2007, then went off with Chambers to complete the $140 sale of crack.

Because the informant was the lone witness to the drug sale, defense attorney Emily Smarto argued that his identity was essential to the case.

"Generally, you want to be able to exercise the right to confrontation and to cross-examine the eyewitness. It was extremely important in this case," Smarto said. "If they don't want to reveal him and produce him for trial, that's all well and good. But the upshot is you get the case dismissed."

Prosecutors argued that even without the informant's testimony the case still could go to a jury. Petrush, in the appeal with the state's Superior Court, contends the judge could simply tell jurors that a witness, the informant, was missing.

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