Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Kenosha unveils “safe haven for crime victims and witnesses”

KenoWi.com recently reported that Kenosha County has created a new victim-witness room in the courthouse.  The room was created because “crime victims and witnesses felt intimidated by friends and family members of the defendants as they waited in hallways or in the courtroom” before testifying.  The new digs come complete with a flat-screen television, a DVD player, movies, toys, games, wall art, new furniture, and even a refrigerator.  (It’s unclear whether the fridge is stocked.)

The report claims that all of the furnishings were donated by local businesses, and that the space was previously unused.  I don’t have any reason to question these claims, so it appears that, except for some initial clean-up cost, the taxpayers weren’t stuck with the tab.  If that is indeed the case, then kudos to our elected officials for obtaining private funding for their project.  (The donors were large retailers, which reminds me of a former assistant prosecutor who told me that when some big companies received bad checks from their customers, the companies would sometimes pursue criminal charges.  She had complained that she was tired of acting as a “collection agency” for corporations, instead of focusing on what she viewed as "real crime."  I have no knowledge of whether the specific donors are, or were, victims in any Kenosha County criminal cases.  But as for funding the new room, better corporate money than taxpayer money.)    

But having recently completed my twenty-fifth jury trial as a criminal defense attorney in Kenosha (a relatively small number by the standards of some local lawyers), I can’t help but offer a few unsolicited comments on the topic of witness coordination:

·        First, witnesses don’t wait “in the courtroom.”  Instead, they are excluded from the courtroom by judicial order until the precise time they are called to testify.  This prevents a witness from changing his story based on the testimony of earlier witnesses, and, more to the point, removes any chance for intimidation.

·        Second, the prosecutor’s witnesses don’t wait “in hallways” either.  Whenever I subpoena a witness that the prosecutor has also subpoenaed, which occurs in nearly every trial, I can never find the witness.  Why?  Because the prosecutor always subpoenas them to their office an hour before court, and commandeers them in one of the victim-witness rooms in the Molinaro Building, just a few feet north of the courthouse.  Then, when it’s time for them to testify, they are escorted into the courtroom by one of the state’s victim-witness coordinators.  Again, this prevents any possible intimidation.

·        Third, the article implies that the defendants are always guilty and their family and supporters are doing something intimidating toward the victims.  But defendants are very often found not guilty; just ask any of our eight trial judges how often that happens in their courtrooms.  And I have never seen, or even heard of, inappropriate behavior by spectators.  If that were to occur, every one of our judges would have them promptly removed from his or her courtroom.

·        Fourth, the new room won’t prevent face-to-face contact with the defendant’s family members and friends, because often these people are themselves witnesses.  In fact, for strategic reasons, the prosecutor will usually subpoena pro-defense witnesses and use them in the state’s case to preempt any impact they may have for the defense.  This will leave alleged victims and witnesses who are adversarial to each other sitting side-by-side in the victim-witness room, arguing over what to watch on the new flat-screen television. 

·        Fifth and finally, witnesses often tell me what they really want, and it’s not flat-screen television viewing for days on end.  Instead, they want to be subpoenaed closer to the time that they’ll actually testify so they don’t have to wait around for several days while missing school, work, or child care duties.  As a defense lawyer, I will often have my defense-only witnesses check in by phone the morning of trial.  Then, I will phone them after court and give them a more specific day and time to report for testimony, based on how the day’s events transpired.  It saves a lot of time and money, and the defense-only witnesses really appreciate it.

But this leaves only one question: Because the room is in a public building—the Kenosha County Courthouse—are defense-only witnesses allowed in as well?


  1. Will there be a bouncer at the door to check subpoenas? If not, perhaps Knightly will be interested.

  2. Good question. Can defense lawyers enjoy the room in between hearings?

  3. My guess is this room is a hideout for the victim-witness coordinators. These "professionals" never seem to be around when anyone needs them unless some generic, interchangeable ADA decides to pull their puppet strings. I hope there is a fence in this nice, comfortable room for these coordinators to straddle.