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Connecticut Supreme Court: Is Detaining Witnesses To Appear In Court Legal?

Almost everyone knows that the commission of a crime can earn you time in jail. But if you live in the state of Connecticut, committing a crime may not be the only thing that can earn you time in prison.

Following the Supreme Court’s ruling in a case involving Damarquis Gray of New Haven, the prosecution can legally detain material witnesses to a crime who refuse to cooperate with investigative agencies.

Court Upholds Witness Detention

The Supreme Court was ruling on an appeal filed by Gray, citing a violation of his constitutional right to a fair trial following the admission of testimonies from witnesses held in jail to secure their appearance in court. Gray argued that the testimonies that led to his conviction and a 47-year sentence were obtained through coercion.

While the Supreme Court ruled against Gray, it expressed the need for the prosecution to exercise caution when doing so in the future. In its report, the court noted that the appeal raised credible questions about the extent to which the detention constituted coercion and the effect it could have on the defendant’s due process rights.

The Case’s Circumstances

Gray’s case involved a shooting that resulted in the death of 20-year-old Durrell Law after an argument between the two and others. Unfortunately, the case took years to resolve because the witnesses, primarily teenagers, could not be located as most of them had moved out of state.

When the prosecution eventually tracked three of the witnesses down, they refused to cooperate with investigators, thus needing to detain the three, including a 20-year-old male and two teenage females.

According to Hartford-based criminal lawyer Michael D. Stewart, the defendant raised the question of the effect forcible detention could have on intimidating the witnesses and the reliability of the testimony obtained. While applauding the Supreme Court’s caution surrounding witness detention for future cases, Lisa Steele, the criminal lawyer representing Gray in the case, said that the Supreme Court misread the coercive effect incarceration would have on witnesses.

Transparency Gave the Detention Credibility

When making the ruling on the admission of the testimonies, the Supreme Court noted that all witnesses had court-appointed advocates, meaning that the court upheld their detention and release rights. Also, the jury was aware of the circumstances surrounding the three witnesses, including the fact that their presence in court was not voluntary.

Each witness testified in court that they were there unwillingly but also stated that the prosecution did not influence their testimony. One of the witnesses testified that the court had given testimony as a condition for their release but not their testimony’s content.

The reluctance of witnesses to help in investigations is mainly motivated by the fear of being labeled a snitch, which can result in devastating consequences on a witness’ social life in their neighborhood. This fact was made clear to the jurors by the witnesses, with one of them citing she feared the repercussions of their testimony.

Less Restrictive Means Preferable

The court also noted that Gray’s lawyer had an opportunity to cross-examine the witnesses but never brought out the effect of the detention on the reliability of their testimony. Based on these facts, the court affirmed the witness detention but stressed the need to use less restrictive methods of having witnesses cooperate.

Also, the court cautioned against making statements that could intimidate witnesses, like mentioning the state’s power, particularly the Department of Children and Families, which could have some element of coercion considering two of the witnesses had children.