Newspaper article St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)

St. Louis Circuit Attorney, Public Defender Clash over Sharing Witness Information

Newspaper article St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)

St. Louis Circuit Attorney, Public Defender Clash over Sharing Witness Information

Article excerpt

ST. LOUIS * Circuit Attorney Jennifer Joyce says she's protecting crime victims and witnesses from potential harm by withholding their information from defense attorneys.

Her prosecutors have, for at least a decade, stripped out dates of birth, Social Security numbers, telephone numbers and addresses from police reports before providing them to defense attorneys.

But Mary Fox, head public defender in St. Louis, says that long- standing practice violates Missouri Supreme Court rules and deprives defendants of their constitutional right to a fair trial.

That legal fight, which played out Friday before St. Louis Circuit Judge Michael K. Mullen, has been brewing since last year when Fox's office sued Joyce to stop the practice.

In Friday's hearing, Joyce's chief trial assistant, Beth Orwick, asked Mullen to reverse his own May 26 order that prosecutors disclose identities and last known addresses of victims and state's witnesses in 172 cases whose defendants are represented by the St. Louis public defenders office.

A Missouri Supreme Court rule requires the disclosure. Orwick reluctantly acknowledged that Joyce's office has willingly violated the rule for years after Mullen repeatedly challenged her interpretation.

"We believe the rule is unconstitutional," Orwick told the judge. "What we're trying to do is change the law. Someone needs to take the lead, your honor, and that's what we're doing."

Replied Mullen: "You're trying to keep information from the other side."

Mullen's blanket protective order that applies to the 172 cases in question allows prosecutors to continue removing Social Security numbers and personal identifying information of police officers. It prohibits public defenders from sharing the last known addresses and phone numbers with their clients, their friends and relatives.

The arguments aired Friday touch on similar issues outlined in a pending appeals case set for August dealing with redacted victim and witness information in 14 other criminal cases in St. Louis. That appeal was filed by Joyce against Mullen. Orwick asked Mullen on Friday to rescind his order and grant hearings in each of the 172 other cases to enable victims and witnesses to testify to whether their personal information should be removed from police reports. Orwick said Mullen's order "does not give the people their chance to participate in the criminal justice system."

Mullen did not issue a ruling Friday but appeared likely to side with the public defenders office's request, saying hearings for each case would "cause a huge clog in the criminal justice system."

Fox, the district public defender, has claimed in court filings that Joyce's prosecutors have "systematically" withheld witness and victim information without seeking protective orders, which Fox called an "abuse of power. …

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