Court hears ‘witness anonymity’ problems

No order made in Cayman’s first case

The Cayman Islands Court of Appeal
heard objections last week to a witness anonymity order, not only for legal
reasons, but also for the practical problems that could arise. Court president
Sir John Chadwick noted it was the first application of its kind to reach the
court since the law was passed in March.

What an anonymity order means

When the Crown applies for and
receives a witness anonymity order, it means not only that the person’s
identity is withheld from the public, but also that it is not disclosed to any
defendant or his legal representative.

Solicitor General Cheryll Richards
began her presentation last week by noting that the Criminal Evidence (Witness
Anonymity) Law provides for appeal to the Court of Appeal when another court
has refused an application. Proceedings were therefore by way of a rehearing.

She explained the need for an order
that would allow a witness to give evidence anonymously in a particular case.
She told the court the offence was serious and the evidence of the potential
witness was critical. The witness had told authorities “I would like justice
for [the victim], while at the same time I fear for the safety of myself and my
family.”

One of the measures the law
provides for ensuring that the witness’ identity is not disclosed is the modulation
of his voice when giving evidence in court. Ms Richards asked for an order that
voice modulation be done by way of a TV link so that the witness would not have
to be in the same room.

Defence counsels Timothy Spencer
and Orlando Pownall of the UK, both of whom were instructed by local attorneys,
raised numerous objections.

Mr. Spencer said that would be a
procedure unprecedented in any jurisdiction he knew of. “There is no reported
case where an anonymous witness has not been in the courtroom and is seen by
the judge and jury, albeit not by the rest of the courtroom.” He pointed out
that the demeanour of the witness is highly important for the judge and jury to
see.

Justice Chadwick said he thought
the question of TV screens would be relatively easy to deal with and the voice
modulation issue could probably be dealt with by using separate headphones. He
did not refer to specific facilities available locally, but Court Five was
built with private viewing screens for jurors and separate consoles for the
judge and attorneys.

However, the court president asked,
“Once you let the jury see the witness, how far is his identity protected?”  If the jury does not see the witness, it
doesn’t matter if the witness is in court or not, he said.

Mr. Spencer argued it was important
for the jury to see the witness and hear his voice not distorted. Any headway
made by the defence attorney who cross-examines the witness is lost if jurors
can’t see the witness’ demeanour and hear any change in his voice, he said.

Mr. Pownall pointed out the
difference between a case in which innocent bystanders have the misfortune of
witnessing events and then have their names disseminated amongst gangsters and
a case of alleged gang feuding in which “everybody is tainted”.

Provisions of the law

The Criminal Evidence (Witness
Anonymity) Law sets out factors a court must consider when an application is
made for a witness anonymity order. They include: the general right of a
defendant to know the identity of a witness; the extent to which witness
credibility would be relevant when is evidence is assessed; whether his
evidence might be “the sole or decisive” evidence implicating the defendant;
whether his evidence could be properly tested without his identity being
disclosed; and whether there was reason to believe he had a tendency or motive
to be dishonest.

Justice Elliott Mottley commented
that when the Crown contends that two or more defendants were acting in
concert, the evidence against one would be against all.

Justice Abdullah Conteh observed
that without knowing who the anonymous witness is, defence attorneys would not
have a full opportunity to test his credibility.

Also noted was the distinction
between protecting the witness’ identity and protecting his safety. Some
jurisdictions relocate their witnesses — how would that work in Cayman? Or
would the witness be relocated to another jurisdiction?

After all the defence arguments
were heard, Ms Richards began her response by dealing with the issue of voice
modulation by TV link. She shared her understanding from technical experts
that, in the absence of a soundproof facility with the witness speaking into a
microphone, people in the room would still hear his voice. She accepted that
the judge and jury need to hear the witness’ normal voice, but the TV link
request took into account the difficulties faced in the courtrooms available.

Ms Richards also addressed concerns
about witness credibility, reminding the court of all the material that had
been disclosed to the Defence.

The next step was for the court to
hear from Ms Richards why the application for a witness anonymity order should
be granted. This was done in the absence of the public and in the absence of
defendants and their attorneys.

When proceedings resumed in open
court, Justice Chawdwick said he and his fellow judges were not satisfied that
measures proposed by the prosecution would be consistent with the defendants in
this particular case getting a fair trial.

He said the judges would put
detailed reasons into writing. That judgment will serve as guidance in future
applications for witness anonymity orders.

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3 COMMENTS

  1. The Criminal Evidence (Witness Anonymity) Law will not secure us as a people, that instead requires we have courage.

    "Courage is reckoned the greatest of all virtues; because, unless a man has that virtue, he has no security for preserving any other." – Samuel Johnson

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  2. Why does it always seem the courts work in the favour of the criminal on this island? You readers do know that the crooks know this and are laughing at each and everyone of you.

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  3. I don’t get it!

    One person says – I dont know about you, but if someone is making allegations against me, I would like to see him or her face-to-face head on!

    Another person says – I dont know about you, but if I am to testify against someone who is dangerous and can harm me or my family, I would rather get in trouble not testifying at all!

    So… who is justified???

    I think it is the right of the first person to see his accuser, and at the same time, it is the right of the second person to not put themselves or love ones in jeopardy by openly testifying.

    Hence, a Witness Anonymity Law would infringe on these individual’s rights! The witness must always have freedom to NOT testify against someone, as well as the accused should always have the freedom to able to see his accuser.

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