Lawyer Planned Witness Intimidation in SF Murder Trial?
A murder trial in San Francisco featured some courtroom drama in which eight men stood up and stared at the case's star witness as she was asked whether she could identify the gunman. They did so at the request of the defendant's attorney. Could the attorney be charged with witness intimidation?
Media focus on witness intimidation and attitudes about "snitching" continues in the wake of the video taped killing of a Chicago teen.
Meanwhile, the murder trial of Charles "Cheese" Heard in San Francisco offered some scripted courtroom theatrics which prosecutors have called a "blatant act of witness intimidation."
Heard is on trial for allegedly murdering Richard Barrett.
As reported by the San Francisco Chronicle, a woman who allegedly saw the shooting testified on Tuesday. As defense counsel asked whether she recognized the gunman, "eight reputed gang members stood up in unison, crossed their arms and stared at the witness." The witness nonetheless identified Mr. Heard.
The judge refused a request from the prosecutor to clear the men from the courtroom. They were later arrested outside the courtroom on suspicion of gang related witness intimidation.
Heard's lawyer, Eric Safire, admitted that he arranged the incident. Wednesday, he asked the court and the District Attorney's office for assurances that he himself would not be arrested for witness intimidation. He received no such assurances.
Under California law, anyone who "knowingly and maliciously attempts to prevent or dissuade any witness or victim from attending or giving testimony at any trial" commits a public offense punishable by up to a year in county jail or state prison.
In certain circumstances, including when the act is accompanied by force or by an "express or implied threat of force or violence," the offense becomes a felony punishable by up to four years in prison.
Two of the other circumstances that push the offense to a felony with more jail time:
- if the act is part of a conspiracy; or
- if the act is requested by someone else and paid for in some way.
In either of these cases, everyone involved is guilty of a felony.
On Wednesday, Safire told the court that the stunt was meant to draw attention to the number of people who match the gunman's description, including the gold plated teeth which the men flashed while staring at the witness. (The judge had reportedly refused a request for the defendant to wear street clothes and sit in the gallery during the identification, as opposed to wearing an orange jumpsuit in the defendant's chair.)
Safire argued that if not assured he won't be arrested, he may have to withdraw from the case. To that, the judge responded, "I guess you'll have to withdraw, because I can't guarantee you won't be arrested."
Another revelation from Wednesday's testimony: the killing was not over the victim's diamond encrusted medallion of The Flintstones' Bamm-Bamm, which prosecutors alleged as the motive. An acquaintance took the medallion from the dying Barrett and returned it to Barrett's family.
[Hat tip: Kenneth]
- Eight arrested on suspicion of intimidating a witness (San Francisco Examiner)
- The Story of a Snitch (The Atlantic, 2007)
- Witness Intimidation [pdf] (US DOJ)
- Classifications of Crimes (provided by Law Office of Joseph J. Colarusso)
- Constitutional Protections for the Criminal Defendant (provided by Harold W. Stone III, PC)