In a spate of opinions, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit has taken aim at deals between prosecutors and witnesses that aren’t disclosed to defense counsel, reports the Recorder. In three opinions last year — and at least two earlier ones — the court took strong umbrage when reversing convictions in cases with such deals. Senior 9th Circuit Judge Stephen Trott said he’s glad the court is taking such a hard line on secret deals, which have rankled him for years. Trott spent 23 years as a state and federal prosecutor. Each year, he lectures new prosecutors on the perils of using criminals as witnesses. “Snitches are interested in only one thing: their freedom,” he said, adding that when a snitch trades testimony for a deal, it calls into question the veracity of such testimony. Covering up such a deal, Trott said, is a clear violation of a prosecutor’s duty to follow the law. “It was utterly inexcusable to do something like that,” he said.
Last year’s opinions, say criminal defense lawyers, show a growing awareness of the problems posed by witness deals. In one case, Judge Sidney Thomas wrote for the majority that, “This is not the first time we have been confronted in recent years with schemes to place false or distorted evidence before a jury.” In that case, a prosecutor had struck a deal with the witness’s lawyer, who agreed not to inform the witness of the deal until after his testimony. “Our criminal justice system depends on the integrity of the attorneys who present their cases to the jury,” Thomas said. “When even a single conviction is obtained through perjurious or deceptive means, the entire foundation of justice is weakened.”