Monday, June 16, 2008

Unequal Treatment Of Witnesses

The West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals affirmed the grant of habeas corpus relief to a convicted defendant serving a life sentence. The basis? Both state and the defense called incarcerated individuals as witnesses. The state's witnesses were permitted to testify in civilian clothes; the defense witnesses were clothed in prison garb and shackled. The court concluded:

Under the unique facts of this case, where seven crucial defense witnesses testified before the jury in prison garb and shackles while the State's two key witnesses testified in civilian clothing and without shackles, it would be illogical to conclude that the witnesses' contrasting appearance did not appreciably impact the jury's assessment of the witnesses' credibility. As this Court pointed out in Allah Jamaal W., “[r]egardless of how credible the testimony of these witnesses may have been, . . . it [is] unlikely that the jury would find their testimony credible.” 209 W.Va. at 7, 543 S.E.2d at 288. As we held in syllabus point two of State v. Varner, 212 W.Va. 532, 575 S.E.2d 142 (2002), “'“[t]he right to a trial by an impartial, objective jury in a criminal case is a fundamental right guaranteed by the Sixth and Fourteenth Amendments of the United States Constitution and Article III, Section 14 of the West Virginia Constitution.” Syllabus point 4, [in part,] State v. Peacher, 167 W.Va. 540, 280 S.E.2d 559 (1981).' Syllabus point 4, in part, State v. Derr, 192 W.Va. 165, 451 S.E.2d 731 (1994).” “And the question of whether a jury is impartial is dependent upon whether the jurors are free from bias or prejudice either for or against the accused.” State v. McClure, 184 W.Va. 418, 421, 400 S.E.2d 853, 856 (1990) (citing State v. Pratt, 161 W.Va. 530, 244 S.E.2d 227 (1978), and State v. Hatfield, 48 W.Va. 561, 37 S.E. 626
(1900)). Accordingly, the drastic contrast in the physical appearance of the parties' incarcerated witnesses - each of whom provided crucial testimony at trial - unfairly influenced the jury's judgment of the witnesses' credibility. As a result, Defendant's constitutional right to a fair trial was clearly violated. Accordingly, we affirm the lower court's order granting Defendant's petition for writ of habeas corpus.

(Mike Frisch)

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