CROSS-EXAMINING A “SNITCH” WITNESS IN A MINNESOTA DRUG CASE: WHY THE LAWYER YOU HIRE MUST HAVE JURY TRIAL EXPERIENCE

A lawyer must be artful and practiced when he or she cross-examines a “snitch” witness says Minnesota Attorney, Robert D. Miller. There is no substitution for experience, “A criminal defense lawyer cannot even start to assess his or her worth as a jury trial lawyer until they have tried 40 or more serious jury trials” Miller said.

Miller points to a case where his client was charged with a first-degree drug case. The state alleged that his client had sold various amounts of cocaine to many people over a relatively short period. The Owatonna People’s Press reported on the case.

The key to cross-examining informants (aka “snitches”) is to establish a motive clearly for their fabricated or embellished testimony– “you have to let the jury know that the witness is benefiting from testifying– there is something in it for them, and often it involves a substantial cut in jail time or no charges against them”, Miller said.

Miller offered a typical exchange that could occur between a snitch witness and him during a trial before a jury (Not from the case noted above). Depending on the deal the state has made, the exchange differs. In the following colloquy, the witness was going to receive a probationary disposition if he testified against the defendant.

Miller: So, you have come in the courtroom this afternoon to testify on behalf of the state”

Snitch Witness: Yes

Miller: You have been charged with a drug offense?

Snitch Witness: I have

Miller: But you have not been sentenced on that case yet?

Snitch Witness: No

Miller: Your sentence depends in part on your willingness to testify against my client in this case?

Snitch Witness: I am here to testify truthfully

Miller: Truthfully? But truth be told, you will receive a sentence reduction for your testimony here this afternoon?

Snitch Witness: I’m not sure

Miller: Is it your testimony that you have no expectation of a lenient or reduced sentence in exchange for your testimony this afternoon?

Snitch Witness: I’m not sure.

Miller: Well, you have been charged with a first-degree drug case

Snitch Witness: Yes

Miller: In the Complaint filed against you, it says the maximum penalty is 30 years in prison

Snitch Witness: Yes

Miller: You are not expecting a 30-year sentence?

Snitch Witness: No

Miller: You are not expecting a 10-year sentence?

Snitch Witness: No

Miller: Nor a 5-year sentence?

Snitch Witness: No

Miller: In fact, you are not looking at a prison sentence at all?

Snitch Witness: No

Miller: You are looking at a probationary sentence?

Snitch Witness: Probably

Miller: And you are here this afternoon to testify for the prosecutor?

Snitch Witness: Yes

The witness is often fatally discredited when a jury realizes that he or she is testifying to save their own skin. Robert Miller has discredited witnesses in numerous trials.

The questions a defendant must ask a lawyer before he or she hires an attorney he says are:  “How many jury trials have you had? Have you gone before a jury in a case similar to mine? “There is absolutely no replacement for experience,” Miller reiterated. “How do you expect a lawyer to be effective if he or she has not tried numerous jury trials.”

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