The following incident took place in 1994, yet it offers salient lessons on why criminal defendants need protection in – if not from – the U.S. legal system. Its continued relevance says a lot about what defendants often face in trials.
In DuPage County Circuit Court in Illinois, a case’s sole witness – a police officer – was about to identify the person sitting in the defendant’s chair as the perpetrator of a crime. Describing his investigation at the scene of the traffic accident, the officer recounted how the defendant failed to produce his driver’s license (which had been revoked).
As the New York Times reports, what happens next is both instructive and frightening in what it says about some trial proceedings.
That man, the one at counsel’s table, the tall, thin fellow with dark blond hair, wearing glasses and a striped shirt, was the defendant, Christopher Simac, the officer said.
The aforementioned fellow took the stand. His name: David P. Armanentos. Had he been driving a motor vehicle in the vicinity of the accident that day? asked the defense lawyer.
No, said Mr. Armanentos, a temporary clerk in the lawyer’s firm.
Meanwhile, in the back of the courtroom watching Mr. Armanentos blow the state’s case to smithereens, sat Christopher Simac, a tall, thin fellow with dark blond hair, wearing glasses and a striped shirt. Indeed when the prosecutor asked the officer to look around the courtroom again, he picked out Mr. Armanentos.
In other words, the only witness at the scene of a crime could not tell the defendant from a temporary legal clerk. Needless to say, this revelation led to the associate judge giving a directed verdict of not guilty, though not before finding defense lawyer David Sotomayor in criminal contempt for “conduct calculated to embarrass, hinder or obstruct a court in its administration of justice or to derogate from its authority or dignity” (the judge had not been privy to this effective but theatrical switch).
Though the appellate court upheld the trial judge’s verdict, Mr. Sotomayor’s $500 fine was reduced to just $100. The Illinois Supreme Court still found Mr. Sotomayor guilty of criminal contempt yet upheld the reduced fined. Perhaps this shows tacit support for the unconventional yet ultimately deal-breaking tactic.
In any case, this anecdote is far from the only one demonstrating how hazardous trial cases can be. Witness testimony is often unreliable, and that does not stop prosecutors from leaning heavily on it, even if it means badgering witnesses to take the stand. In this instance, someone would have had their lives changed for the worst because of an errant memory.
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