In United States v. El-Mezain, issued on December 7, a unanimous panel of the Fifth Circuit upheld a trial court decision allowing two prosecution witnesses to testify under pseudonym. My former student Patrick Luff, now teaching at Washington & Lee, put me on to an essay on the case by another former student, Jeffrey Kahn of the SMU faculty.) I would not be surprised if, assuming the decision is not vacated by the full court sitting en banc, the case heads up to the Supreme Court.
The case concerns a purported charity, Holy Land Foundation (HLF), that the Government alleges funneled money to Hamas; the defendants are HLF and five individuals. Among the witnesses against them were a legal adviser to the Israeli Security Agency, who testified under the name “Avi” about Hamas financing methods, and a member of the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF), who testified as “Major Lior” to authenticate documents seized by IDF during a military operation. The defense objected, the trial court allowed the testimony, the defendants were convicted, and the Fifth Circuit panel has now affirmed.
Smith v. Illinois, 390 U.S. 129 (1968), seems to stand pretty squarely in the way of the decision. The majority there, per Justice Stewart, said flatly:
[W]hen the credibility of a witness is in issue, the very starting point in ‘exposing falsehood and bringing out the truth’ through cross-examination must necessarily be to ask the witness who he is and where he lives. The witness' name and address open countless avenues of in-court examination and out-of-court investigation. To forbid this most rudimentary inquiry at the threshold is effectively to emasculate the right of cross-examination itself.The panel attempts to avoid Smith first by citing Roviaro v. United States, 353 U.S. 53 (1957), which spoke of “balancing the public interest in protecting the flow of information against the individual’s right to prepare his defense.” But goodness, Roviaro involved the defendant’s attempt to learn the name of an informer, not someone who had testified against him at trial; the confrontation right was not at play.
The panel also tries to suggest that Smith was a balancing case, but that seems to me to be a stretch. The panel is, however, able to point to the concurring opinion in Smith of Justice White, joined by Justice Marshall. He said that,
if the question asked is one that is normally permissible, the State or the witness should, at the very least, come forward with some showing of why the witness must be excused from answering the question. The trial judge can then ascertain the interest of the defendant in the answer, and exercise an informed discretion in making his ruling.
In Smith, he said, that was not done. And therefore, he joined the Court’s opinion, adding that, as he understood it, the opinion was “not inconsistent with these views.” I would have thought the unqualified language of the majority opinion was indeed inconsistent with those views, and that it was sufficiently obvious why the witness, who said he had bought heroin from Smith with marked money provided by police officers, might have felt fearful. But perhaps the Supreme Court of this era will resolve the matter.
Here, it does seem that the Government presented reasons to be concerned about the witnesses’ safety (though I believe that personally I would feel far less protected if I were a Chicago heroin purchaser testifying against my supplier than if I were an Israeli officer testifying against Hamas). It is not clear to me how important the testimony of these particular witnesses was to the prosecution case; Avi was presumably not the only person with the necessary expertise, and Major Lior was not even present at the seizure.
The panel emphasized how much the defense was able to do on cross; it appears to me that this does not meet the concern that other possibilities for discrediting the testimony cannot be pursued.
The panel also gave cursory attention to the possibility that identifying information might have been provided in confidence to defense counsel. Indeed, the panel gave no reason to suppose that any danger could not be avoided by making the disclosure to counsel alone. Compare United States v. Celis, 608 F.3d 818 (D.C. Cir. 2010). The panel did say that such limited disclosure was “unlikely to yield useful information.” It seems to me that this reasoning is precluded by Smith, which quoted an earlier case, Alford v. United States, 282 U.S. 687 (1931), also involving hiding the witness’s place of residence:
It is the essence of a fair trial that reasonable latitude be given the cross-examiner, even though he is unable to state to the court what facts a reasonable cross-examination might develop. Prejudice ensues from a denial of the opportunity to place the witness in his proper setting and put the weight of his testimony and his credibility to a test, without which the jury cannot fairly appraise them. . . . To say that prejudice can be established only by showing that the cross-examination, if pursued, would necessarily have brought out facts tending to discredit the testimony in chief is to deny a substantial right and withdraw one of the safeguards essential to a fair trial. . . .It seems to me there should be a categorical right to have the information disclosed to counsel, under satisfactory confidentiality protections.