In Fight Over Witness Information, St. Louis Prosecutors Turn to Public for Support

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When it comes to withholding witness information from public defenders, Jennifer Joyce refuses to back down. - PHOTO BY DANNY WICENTOWSKI
  • Photo by Danny Wicentowski
  • When it comes to withholding witness information from public defenders, Jennifer Joyce refuses to back down.

St. Louis Circuit Attorney Jennifer Joyce calls it a road map that violent criminals can follow directly to victims and witnesses. Public defenders call it the law. 

The dispute centers on personal information linked to crime victims and witnesses, and whether prosecutors must share that information — like social security numbers and addresses — with defense attorneys. In court earlier this month, Joyce's chief trial assistant admitted that the office routinely erases such information from police reports before providing them to defense counsel. 

But the St. Louis public defender's office says the policy violates a 1979 Missouri Supreme Court rule that obligates the disclosure, and the ongoing legal battle is now clogging a St. Louis Circuit Court with hearings on some 150 criminal cases. So far, a St. Louis judge has sided with Joyce on about 70 cases but denied her request to strike the information on another 60, reports KMOX (1120 AM)

As the hearings plod on, the Circuit Attorney's Office is turning to community forums to build public support for changing the rule. The first was held Wednesday night at the headquarters of the local branch of the NAACP. 

Speaking before a modest crowd of about a dozen attendees, prosecutor Jane Darst said the 1979 Missouri Supreme Court rule is "antiquated" and doesn't address the existence of social media and the internet. If defense attorneys need to meet with witnesses or victims, she explained, then prosecutors can arrange the meetings without disclosing any personal information. 

"We’ve been doing that for a very long time," said Darst. "We all know there are problems with getting victims and witnesses to come forward. Unfortunately, knowing that your personal information is going to get turned over, that's like pouring gasoline on the fire." 

But Darst isn't merely arguing that disclosing personal information to defense attorneys will dissuade witnesses from coming forward. There was also real danger for these witnesses and victim, she said. She suggested that criminals could disseminate the information over social media or use social security numbers to steal identities. 

However, Darst could not cite any examples where this actually happened in St. Louis.

Joyce has struggled on this point as well. In the past, she's cited the April killing of Frankie Phillips, who was fatally shot the day before he was supposed to testify in an assault case. But when pressed, she told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch that she didn’t actually know if Phillips was killed because he agreed to testify. Instead, she floated the idea that it was "fair to assume that his information was provided to the defense.”

It turns out that Joyce's assumption wasn't fair at all. The public defender representing Phillips' killer later told Post-Dispatch that she never received Phillips’ address or phone number, and that the police report provided by prosecutors had been redacted. The public defender, Megan Beesley, called Joyce's statements “irresponsible” and “unethical." 

Mary Fox, head public defender in St. Louis, has levied similar criticisms against Joyce. She's called Joyce's policy of protective secrecy "an abuse of power." Fox maintains that public defenders have the law on their side and should be permitted to contact and interview witnesses free of prosecutorial interference. 

But for Joyce and her prosecutors, the stakes go much deeper than a public defender's desire for convenience. 

"The idea that we would put victims and witnesses at risk for no other reason than public defenders want to talk to them unfettered? I really don’t see that," said Darst in an interview after forum concluded. "[Public defenders] can talk to them unfettered. If witnesses don't want us there we don't have to be there." 

Beyond the court battle and legal disputes, witnesses are plain scared, Darst said. She claims she's seen too many cases where killers found victims and witnesses. The fear and intimidation is real.

"We have had witnesses killed, and we’ve had witnesses killed the day before the case is supposed to start," Darst said. "How they got the information? That’s harder to prove." 

Follow Danny Wicentowski on Twitter at @D_Towski. E-mail the author at Danny.Wicentowski@RiverfrontTimes.com


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