Friday, April 27, 2007

Can testimony be preserved before arrest?

It often happens that for some time after commission of a crime, especially a homicide, a suspect is not apprehended, yet the state anticipates that eventually there may be an arrest and a trial. Now suppose that a prosecutor realizes that a key witness may not be available by the time of a trial. May the prosecution preserve the witness's testimony?

Let's divide the problem into three. In the first variation, the ultimate defendant has been identified as the principal suspect, but he has not yet been apprehended. I've speculated about the possibility that counsel could be appointed for the suspect, some form of notice be given to the suspect, and a deposition held. That, it seems to me, gives an adequate opportunity for confrontation, at least if the notice given was reasonable under the circumstances; perhaps the accused would have had to emerge from hiding to confront the witness and to consult with counsel, but he did not have a right to remain in hiding. If there isn't notice of the deposition, but the eventual accused knows that he is being sought, is that enough to constitute a forfeiture of whatever aspects of the confrontation right were not protected by the deposition procedure? I don't know.

In variation two, the ultimate defendant is one of several identified suspects shortly after the crime, and the authorities don't yet have enough evidence to arrest any of them. In this variation, it seems the solution is to give notice to all of them, to offer counsel to each of them, and to appoint counsel for any that do not appear.

The toughest variation arises when the authorities have not yet identified a suspect. May they still preserve the testimony by giving some kind of publication notice, appointing counsel for the ultimate defendant, and taking a deposition? That is considerably more difficult, but the matter is still worth considering. In some cases, and on some issues, counsel may be able to conduct suitable cross-examination even without knowing who his client is. But is this enough?

I've just stumbled across People v. Wilkey, 2004 WL 576659 (Mich. Apps. 2004), which highlights some of the issues with respect to pre-arrest preservation of testimony. This was a homicide committed in the course of a break-in. The victim's widow, who was present at the scene, was 82 years old. Wilkey was one of several suspects from the start, but no arrest was made for some time. So the state held a deposition of the widow. A lawyer, who later became a judge, was appointed to represent the interests of any future defendant. The widow's testimony was quite detailed about the event. She also gave some physical description of the perpetrator, who was wearing a mask. According to the appellate court, the defense lawyer, "in a very respectful manner, asked questions of [the widow] to show that she was of sound mind, e.g., what is the date, and she answered appropriately." At the close of her tesitmony, counsel offered the opinion that she was "not easily confused."

The widow died before Wilkey's trial, and the prosecution introduced the deposition transcript. Wilkey was convicted and the appellate court affirmed. Its decision came fifteen days after Crawford, but the court showed no recognition of Crawford, and held that the deposition was admissible under Michigan's residual exception to the hearsay rule. The court did take into account Wilkey's argument that the appointed lawyer had no motive to develop evidence to support Wilkey's theory that the perpetrator was one of two other men identified by Wilkey. The court acknowledged that "more precise questions could have been asked . . . if counsel was aware of the physical characteristics of defendant," but concluded that the lawyer had the tools to develop evidence about the perpetrator's physical characteristics., and did so.

I think the appointment of counsel in this case before the arrest or even definite identification of the accused is noteworthy. Courts ought to encourage prosecutors to preserve testimony where possible. But in this case, the court could have done better. This was a case fitting within the second variation described above -- Wilkey was one of several suspects identified at the time of the deposition. He, along with the others, should have been given notice before the deposition, and he should have had an opportunity fo separate representation, so his lawyer could have asked the widow questions that might have deflected suspicion away from himself. In a system that guarantees the rights of effective assistance of counsel and confrontation of adverse witnesses, it is not enough to be assured that a lawyer was appointed who had a disinterested opportunity to explore the facts.


Greg Jones said...

If you're not on Westlaw, its available at the State Bar of Michigan website for free:, research and links/court opinions/March 23, 2004. It's also available at

Anonymous said...

In the last variation, I can imagine this exchange with the judge:

"But, Your Honor, my client, although accused of the murder, is not the murderer. So, although there was public notice of the deposition, he had no reason to attend. Now that he is accused, of course he'd like to have his chance at cross, but, alas, it is too late. If you say he waived all those months/years ago, you are passing judgment that, in fact, he is the murderer, and that he should have been at the past deposition . . . ."

Paulo Dá Mesquita said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Paulo Dá Mesquita said...

Professor Friedman I agree with your division, but I think we must open a fourth hypothesis, which probably is the toughest variation: when the authorities have identified one or more suspects, but the future defendant will be a different person. In that case the lawyers who represent the suspect(s) in the cross-examination have an interest opposed to the future defendant.

Paulo Dá Mesquita (portuguese researcher,