Prosecutors and Courts need to do more to protect mentally challenged Witnesses.

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The New York Times reports “A rape victim who was jailed in Texas for nearly a month because prosecutors feared she would not return to testify after having a mental breakdown on the stand has sued the Harris County district attorney’s office, county officials, and jail employees.” The lawsuit contends that the plaintiff identified as “Jane Doe” was beaten by a guard (she was misclassified as a sexual offender and not as a victim) and attacked by another inmate who repeatedly slammed her head into a concrete floor the civil Complaint alleges. purportedly 

She was housed in the Harrison, Texas County Jail following a judge’s order of detention pending her testimony (AS A VICTIM) in a rape case there. The judge was apparently not named in the legal challenge.

. The same jail has been the subject of a six-part investigation conducted by the Houston Chronicle that “exposed avoidable in-custody deaths, civil rights abuses, beatings, unjust prosecutions of prisoners and allegations of medical neglect in the Harris County jail, one of the nation’s largest county lock-ups.”

COMMENT: Prosecutors have the burden in a criminal case to prove their cases beyond a reasonable doubt: They are in charge of their witnesses, and almost without exception, have more than enough money and staff to provide “witness advocates” or legal assistants to counsel and guide THEIR witnesses through the trial process.

It is true that their own witnesses do not always cooperate; they may fail to show at a hearing or trial or testify differently from their prior statements or refuse to testify at all. The remedy available is contempt of court (or impeachment of the witness with their previous statement in the latter example), and sometimes the court may take the extraordinary step of jailing the state’s witness: Many ethical and fair judges would be hesitant to take this action, particularly when the witness is apparently suffering from a mental challenge: It is shocking to hear that any judge would imprison the witness without ordering special safeguards tailored to address the mental issues of the witness. It is also incumbent upon the prosecutor to take steps to assure the safety of such witnesses: Prosecutors are “Ministers of Justice” not merely advocates for guilty verdicts. We hope that all of these issues and the conduct and actions of the jail facility are satisfactorily addressed in this federal suit. The victim should also consider bar complaints in this matter.





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