Ethics in Trial – Does it Matter if Your Witnesses are Credible?

What do you do when you discover that your star witness speaks to the dead, has sex with animals, and had visions of the murder that you are prosecuting?

Put them on the witness stand, apparently. And get a conviction based on their testimony.

Johnny Oquendo was found guilty of murder earlier this month in Connecticut, based in part on the testimony of a witness who 1) had an ax to grind and 2) was demonstrably insane.

Just how insane was she, and is it ethical for a prosecutor to use a witness like this one to obtain a conviction?

What Happened in the Trial

Oquendo was convicted of murdering his step-daughter, stuffing her body into a suitcase, and throwing it into a river. The star witness? His ex-girlfriend, who had previously said that she hoped he would die of AIDS, slip on a knife and kill himself, and get the death penalty.

During her testimony, it also was revealed that:

  • She had a history of substance abuse problems;
  • She had a history of mental illness;
  • She “received messages” from the dead victim;
  • She experienced visions of the murder and described how it happened in her visions;
  • She has videotaped herself having sex with a dog and has logged onto bestiality websites hundreds of times;
  • She speaks to the dead through “Through their energy or pictures in my mind,” an ability that she has since age nine.

We can assume that the prosecutor knew all of this before calling her as a witness. The article is not clear as to whether the defense attorney moved to exclude her testimony, but the attorney did cross-examine the witness on all of the above.

Should the Witness Have Been Allowed to Testify?

The prosecutor ostensibly called her as a witness to identify the suitcase used as belonging to Oquendo and to identify clothing that he may have been wearing on the date of the murder.

These are important facts that the prosecution needed to establish, but what is the prosecutor’s responsibility when it comes to the credibility of witnesses that they use?

Rule 3.8: Special Responsibilities of a Prosecutor, Comment 1 says:

A prosecutor has the responsibility of a minister of justice and not simply that of an advocate. This responsibility carries with it specific obligations to see that the defendant is accorded procedural justice and that guilt is decided upon the basis of sufficient evidence.

The prosecutor has a right to call any witness that would establish relevant facts, even if the witness has no credibility. If a prosecutor calls a witness like the one here, it is on them when they lose their trial because they have lost credibility themselves. It is on the defense attorney to bring out the witness’s bias and insanity in cross-examination.

Was Oquendo guilty? I don’t know. Would he have been convicted if the witness did not testify? Again, I don’t know – it depends on how much evidence they had against him independent of the necromancer.

If Oquendo would not have been convicted without this witness’s testimony, is the conviction reliable? As far as I know, there are no ethical violations in the prosecutor’s use of the witness in this case. It is, however, difficult to understand how a “minister of justice” could call a witness that they know has severe mental health problems and present them to the court and jury as credible. Especially if a conviction would rest on that witness’s testimony.

The defense should have (and maybe did) fought tooth and nail to keep this witness off the stand. The prosecutor should have looked at this witness’s background and accepted that they could not trust their testimony.

If the jurors would not have convicted absent this witness’s testimony, it’s a travesty of justice whether Oquendo was guilty or not.

Myrtle Beach Criminal Defense Lawyer

If you are charged with a crime in Myrtle Beach, Conway, or the Horry County area, I want to help. We represent clients charged with all types of crimes ranging from speeding tickets to murder. Call me at (843) 492-5449 or fill out our online contact form to set up a free, confidential consultation to discuss your case.

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