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Witness Immunity Approved

May 09, 1997
By: ANN S. KIM
State Capital Bureau

JEFFERSON CITY - Prosecutors will have a tool to force criminals to testify in criminal cases under a measure sent to Missouri's governor Thursday (May 8).

Under the measure, a prosecutor could seek a judicial order granting a witness immunity from prosecution in return for the person's testimony.

After years of delay on the issue, the bill is a welcome measure for Richard Callahan, head of the Missouri Association of Prosecuting Attorneys.

"The lack of a witness immunity bill has been a fundamental weakness in our system," Callahan said.

That weakness "affects prosecution day in and day out" and allows citizens "to simply refuse to cooperate and provide information they have concerning the commission of a crime," Callahan said.

A former prosecutor, Sen. Harold Caskey, D-Butler, handled the bill in the Senate. He said that this measure will be important in the "arsenal for fighting crime."

If Carnahan signs the bill, witnesses could be forced to testify when no other source of evidence could prove the case beyond a reasonable doubt.

Those earlier attempts, however, differed from this year's legislation in an important way. Those bills would have given only limited immunity to witnesses forced to testify. This kind of immunity, known as "use and fruits immunity" would allow a witness to be prosecuted, but only with evidence was not obtained as a result of the person's testimony.

This year's legislation would provide a witness with complete, or "transactional" immunity. The witness could not be prosecuted for any role in the crime.

Marsha Richeson, a lobbyist with the American Civil Liberties Union of Eastern Missouri, explained that her organization opposed use immunity bills.

Richeson cited the case of Oliver North as an example of how use immunity does not work.

"Oliver North was compelled to testify. He was given use immunity. He was subsequently charged," Richeson said."It's very difficult to prove that prosecutors have not used what you said."

Regarding the bill's passage through both chambers, Richeson said, "I'm pleased that it's transactional rather than use [immunity]."

But Richeson said she does is worried about witnesses who may be in danger because of their testimony.

"We still have some concern that about the protection of witnesses," she said.

Though the bill passed with a wide margin, it was met with some skepticism on the Senate floor.

Sen. Ken Jacob, D-Columbia and practicing attorney, mentioned that he was concerned about implications the bill might have on civil liberties.

"It's kind of a gut thing for me," Jacob said of his reservations on forcing people to give testimony.

Caskey countered with arguments about citizens' responsibilities.

"A lot of folks don't like to serve on juries," Caskey said. "That's a responsibility of citizenship and that's the way we keep our country free. It's the same thing if you're a witness for a trial."