Sarah Stillman is a staff writer at The New Yorker writes a compelling story about the arrest and jailing of innocent material witnesses. Here is a sample of her provocative article:
In New Orleans, Renata Singleton called the cops after her then boyfriend, in a jealous fit, grabbed her cell phone and smashed it; she’d feared for her safety.
As trial rolled around for her ex-boyfriend, Singleton the victim, was put in jail as a material witness. She was locked up for a week although she had three small kids, ties to the community, and a job.
On the day of trial she showed up ready to testify, only to learn that her ex-boyfriend had already pleaded guilty, avoiding jail time altogether.
According to Stillman, “Her testimony wasn’t needed after all. He’d agreed to a six-month suspended sentence, with one year of inactive probation. “I was so violated, so upset and hurt that I had to sit in jail,” Singleton told me. “So, when I found out he took a plea and didn’t have to do anything, I was, like, ‘Are you serious . . . I wish I could have had that deal.”
The right to jail these so-called material witnesses has deep roots in America. (A material witness is an individual considered vital to a case, often because he or she saw a crime unfold or was its victim.) As early as 1789, the Judiciary Act codified the duty of witnesses to appear before the court and testify. From a public-safety perspective, the statute has a clear purpose: the perpetrator of a crime should not escape punishment because of a witness’s reluctance to testify. “The duty to disclose knowledge of crime rests upon all citizens,” a 1953 U.S. Supreme Court opinion, in the case Stein v. New York, reads. “It is so vital that one known to be innocent may be detained, in the absence of bail, as a material witness.”
In 1984, Congress reaffirmed the right to jail material witnesses, but also noted that their testimony should be secured by deposition, rather than imprisonment, “whenever possible.” Jailing crime survivors and innocent witnesses, in other words, was legal but undesirable.
After the attacks of September 11, 2001, Attorney General John Ashcroft identified the material-witness statute as a convenient weapon for the war on terror. Federal agents could use it to detain individuals of interest, even without sufficient evidence to arrest them as criminal defendants, by deeming them “witnesses” to terrorism-related crimes. In late 2001, the Department of Justice used material-witness laws to target Muslims, often arresting them at gunpoint and later placing some in solitary confinement. According to Human Rights Watch, the U.S. government eventually apologized to at least thirteen people for wrongful detention as material witnesses, and released dozens more without charges.
“Holding as ‘witnesses’ people who are in fact suspects sets a disturbing precedent for future use of this extraordinary government power to deprive citizens and others of their liberty,” Human Rights Watch argued. In the face of lawsuits and public scrutiny, the practice slowed.
Recently, however, controversy over the use of material-witness statutes has resurfaced—this time at the state and local level.
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