Otis Harris of New Orleans testified before a state grand jury, and then at a pretrial hearing. But when prosecutors were ready to present Harris as a key witness in a murder trial last month, he got cold feet, reports the New Orleans Times-Picayune. To make sure he showed up for the trial, the Orleans Parish district attorney’s office obtained a $75,000 material witness bond, an infrequently used provision for controlling reluctant or hard-to-find witnesses. Once signed by a judge, it’s like an arrest warrant without a time limit.
With the bond, prosecutors were able to pluck Harris from a Texas drug rehabilitation center, fly him to New Orleans and throw him in jail. He agreed to take the stand. Almost as quickly as prosecutors had Harris arrested, they freed by dropping the warrant. “If an individual is available and cooperating, we generally (drop) the charge,” said a prosecutor’s spokesperson.
Material witness bonds are considered a last resort for uncoopoerative witnesses. In the past 10 years, state prosecutors in New Orleans have obtained 70 such bonds, an average of seven per year. Since District Attorney Eddie Jordan became the city’s chief prosecutor in January 2003, his office has obtained three material witness warrants. Prosecutors have threatened to use them in several cases in which the witnesses eventually agreed to appear.
Under state law, material witness bonds can be requested from a judge if prosecutors or defense attorneys think an essential witness will disappear to avoid testifying. If convinced, the judge signs the bond and sets bail high enough to give it teeth. At that point, the bond can be used to take the witness into custody. The bond does not expire; the only way out is to testify –or pay up.
Defense attorneys can use it, but the statute is employed almost exclusively by prosecutors, usually after every other means of securing testimony has been exhausted. “It’s an absolute, absolute last resort,” said Gaynell Williams, Jordan’s executive first assistant. Jordan uses the bonds only in murder cases in which the lack of testimony would force charges to be dismissed.