Wednesday, June 25, 2008

The Law Lords and Anonymous witnesses

The Law Lords have, in a well argued judgement ruled that Ian Davis had not received a fair trial because there was too much anonymous witness evidence. (See the BBC here)

The Police have expressed great concern about the ruling because they have many cases which rely on anonymous witness evidence.

So why the problem?

Obviously criminals, particularly those who have committed serious crimes such as murder have no respect for other peoples lives, and will not think twice about intimidating witnesses. There friends, family or gang members may do the actual intimidation so the fact that the accused is locked up is not enough.

However the right to a fair trial is a common law right, now in the Human Rights act as is the right to see and confront your accuser. This is vital to a fair trial.

Imagine the situation where you (and yes, I do mean YOU) are accused of a crime, say murder, and the only evidence against you is that of 2 anonymous witnesses. Neither you nor your defence team know who they are. You do not know what if any axes they have to grind against you.

Is there a precedent for anonymous witnesses? Yes, though not a happy one, the Spanish inquisition used them were on the list of , though I have heard that you had to have 3 accusers and got to write down a list of enemies. If your enemiesaccusers they were struck off.

If you think about it having anonymous witnesses is a very bad thing. Someone who feels you have done them down, or who has some axe to grind could be a witness against you, and you would never know.

So what is the real problem here? What is the ill we seek to cure?

It is fear. Remove the fear and then there is no need to have anonymous witnesses.

To remove the fear of witnesses we need to do two things. Firstly there needs to be a fully funded witness protection program, secondly there needs to be a specialist unit to investigate witness intimidation of any sort. We need to make sure that anyone who intimidates a witness serves a long prison sentence, say 10 years as a minimum, or longer if the crime that the intimidation is over has a longer sentence.

If people can't get away with witness intimidation they will stop doing it.

The BBC also has this article by Professor Jon Silverman, of the University of Bedfordshire.

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