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Use immunity for defense witness

In US v. Jamaal L. Mike, No. 10-1394 (Aug. 23, 2010) (click here), the 3d Circuit held that the district court properly denied a defense request for use immunity for a defense witness because the proffered testimony was not "clearly exculpatory" in view of the evidence undercutting both the proffered testimony and the defense theory of the case. (The Court also addressed two other issues unique to the Virgin Islands that are not reviewed here.)

Mike was charged with aiding and abetting the receipt of a gun acquired outside his state of residence. The government's evidence was that another person, Francis, purchased an AK-47 rifle in Florida and had it shipped to a false name in the Virgin Islands. Mike arranged with two others to retrieve it from the Post Office, having them supply the false name. They were arrested once they placed the package in the car. Francis was also arrested, and he pleaded guilty. But he told agents during plea negotiations that Mike and the others did not know what was in the package. Mike then asked the court to grant Francis use immunity, and the court denied the request. Mike was convicted after a trial.

On appeal the 3rd Circuit upheld the conviction, ruling that Francis's testimony would not have been "clearly exculpatory." Following US v. Smith, 615 F.2d 964 (3d Cir. 1980), the Court explained that the right to Due Process includes the right to have "clearly exculpatory" evidence presented to the jury, and this must include the right to compel the testimony of a defense witness who asserts the Fifth Amendment right to remain silent. "[T]he only way to compel this evidence is to grant [use] immunity." For this reason, courts have the inherent judicial power to grant defense witnesses use immunity. Smith imposed five conditions that must be met: "[1] immunity must be properly sought in the district court; [2] the defense witness must be available to testify; [3] the proffered testimony must be clearly exculpatory; [4] the testimony must be essential; and [5] there must be no strong governmental interests which countervail against a grant of immunity." Id. at 972.

The principal issue here concerned condition #3 - whether the evidence was "clearly exculpatory." In US v. Thomas, 357 F.3d 357 (3d Cir. 2004), the Court explained that use immunity may be denied when the exculpatory nature of the testimony is "at best speculative... because a credibility determination would [be] required in order to determine which parties are more credible." Id. at 365-66. The Court here ruled that Francis's testimony would not have been clearly exculpatory because there was "evidence in the record undercutting the testimony Francis might have given and Mike's theory of the case." A juvenile who was with Mike testified that Mike gave him the false name on a slip of paper to use to pick up the package, and also that Mike wanted him to take the rap for the charge since a conviction for him would only mean a stay in a Boy's Home. In addition there were numerous phone calls between Francis and Mike on the days the AK-47 was purchased, the day it was sent, and the day it was picked up. Concluding that the jury here was confronted with "more than just a credibility determination," the Court held that Francis's testimony was not clearly exculpatory.

Chief Judge McKee dissented, stating, "I do not believe our precedent can be interpreted to preclude use immunity for Francis merely because his credibility would have been in issue had he testified. Such a broad prohibition of use immunity would be tantamount to eliminating that tool altogether, even when a witness's testimony was required to satisfy the requirements of due process, because credibility is always an issue whenever any witness testifies.... Here, the district court's ruling deprived Mike of the only witness who could testify about Mike's knowledge of the contents of the package he received."

Practice note: This decision leaves the definition of "clearly exculpatory" very murky. Chief Judge McKee is surely right in stating that since the jury must always make a credibility determination regarding a witness, that fact cannot preclude use immunity. Likewise, the fact that the government has other evidence contradicting the defense theory of the case also cannot be a basis for precluding use immunity. If it were, then use immunity would seem to be available only when the government's case was insufficient.

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