The Supreme Court refused to let California jail inmates testify anonymously in the murder trial of two fellow prisoners. Prosecutors said the inmates needed to keep their names secret to protect their safety.
The court, without comment, on Monday turned down prosecutors’ argument that allowing inmates to testify anonymously will not violate the fair-trial rights of two fellow prisoners charged with stabbing another inmate to death.
Joaquin Alvarado and Jorge Lopez were charged with murder in the Feb. 6, 1993, stabbing death of Jose Uribe, a fellow inmate at the Los Angeles County Jail. Uribe was stabbed 37 times.
Prosecutors are seeking the death penalty against Alvarado but not against Lopez.
Prosecutors asked the trial judge to allow three other inmates, who were in the jail at the time of the killing, to testify without revealing their names. Government lawyers said the inmates were in danger from the prison gang known as the Mexican Mafia that ordered the killing.
A state trial judge ruled that prosecutors could withhold the inmates’ names throughout the trial, but that defense lawyers would be allowed to interview the inmates – without knowing their names – before the trial.
The California Supreme Court ruled last August that the inmates’ identities could be withheld before the trial, but that defense lawyers must be given their names during the trial.
The Constitution’s Sixth Amendment gives criminal defendants the right to confront the witnesses against them. The California court said that to do so effectively, defense lawyers must have the witnesses’ names.
The state court said the witnesses’ identities could be concealed before the trial because they were “particularly vulnerable to threats, coercion or violent acts of other inmates.” The trial was put on hold to allow prosecutors to appeal to the Supreme Court.
In the appeal acted on Monday, prosecutors said the witnesses were in “extreme danger” and that the defendants’ constitutional rights will be adequately protected by allowing their lawyers to cross-examine the witnesses in court.
Lawyers for Alvarado and Lopez said longstanding precedent supports the California Supreme Court’s ruling.
The case is California v. Alvarado, 00-1312.
On the Net: For the state court ruling: http://www.courts.net and click on (name of California.