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September 25, 2004

Judge lifts order shielding witness

From: The Columbian, WA - Sep 25, 2004

Saturday, September 25, 2004
By KEN OLSEN, Columbian staff writer

Clark County Superior Court Judge Diane Woolard lifted a secrecy order Friday that had allowed a key prosecution witness in a recent murder trial to be identified only as John Doe.

Woolard's order came less than 24 hours after Washington Department of Corrections officials moved 34-year-old Shaun Michael Dickson to protective custody, allegedly because inmates in the Twin Rivers Corrections Unit in Monroe learned he had testified against his former cellmate, Christopher Ladner.

"I think he's at continued risk," Woolard said. "I don't think that risk is lessened by keeping the record sealed."

Dickson testified against Ladner on Sept. 16. On Wednesday, a jury found Ladner not guilty of the 2000 murder of 19-year-old Alex Smith. This was second time Ladner was cleared of a murder charge. And jurors from the most recent trial said Dickson was not a credible witness.

Clark County senior deputy prosecuting attorney Mike Kinnie blamed The Columbian for Dickson's predicament.

"They printed everything but his height and weight," Kinnie said.

Now nine Twin Rivers' inmates have threatened to harm or possibly kill Dickson because he's considered a prison snitch.

"The word is already out," Kinnie conceded. But he asked Woolard to wait a few weeks to unseal court records containing Dickson's name to give prosecutors and the Department of Corrections more time to assess the situation.

But Dickson's fellow inmates were always likely to figure out he had testified against Ladner, said The Columbian's attorney, Michele Earl-Hubbard.

"It was unrealistic to think they could keep the witness's identity secret," Hubbard said. "Many of the details about the witness's identity were in the public record and some of them were revealed by Mr. Kinnie at trial.

"I don't think The Columbian can bear any blame," Earl-Hubbard said. "No one wants to see a witness harmed. (But) it is on the shoulders of the prosecutors who called this witness that this risk exists."

Woolard disagreed.

"I think it's somewhat naive on the part of The Columbian to believe that the risk can be dealt with adequately" by the Department of Corrections, Woolard said. "The prison population is hostile."

Woolard also gave no indication she considered her earlier order a mistake. Nor did she address the fact that she had agreed to grant Dickson anonymity in a closed hearing in her chambers, which The Columbian has contended violates state law.

"The court's intent was in trying to maintain a trial that was fair and complete," Woolard said Friday.

The Columbian objected to that secret hearing and granting the witness anonymity last week. The newspaper argued those actions violate the state open records law and failed to protect the witness.

Dickson was a key witness in Ladner's retrial. He shared a cell at Twin Rivers with Ladner, 29, and supposedly heard him confess to Smith's murder.

Jurors were skeptical of Dickson's testimony but paid little attention to his anonymity.

"We were more interested in his credibility," said juror Mary Pulczinski. "He didn't have any.

"Here's a man who was convicted of murdering his mother and paralyzing his father and still claims he did not do that," said Pulczinski, a retired assistant manager from the Washington State Liquor Control Division.

Pulczinski and other jurors also were struck by the fact that Dickson wouldn't testify in the first trial after prosecutors refused to reduce his prison sentence. And they didn't buy Dickson's story that he came forward because he was concerned that Ladner would harm Ladner's former girlfriend, Kimber Douglas.

Douglas, Ladner's former girlfriend and classmate at the Washington School for the Deaf, told police that she saw Ladner stab and shoot Smith in February 2000. She is serving 81/2 years for second-degree murder in connection with Smith's killing and also served as a prosecution witness.

"If he felt so bad for the girl, why didn't he testify in the first trial?" Pulczinski asked.

She and other jurors also discounted Dickson's testimony because prosecutors and Department of Corrections officials promised to keep him at Twin Rivers rather than sending him to the harsher quarters at the Washington State Penitentiary in Walla Walla.

"We believe he is benefiting from this tremendously," said Jared Hayden, a juror and software engineer. "He gets a much cushier stay" behind bars.

Beyond that, "we believed he was mentally capable of being able to twist any situation," Hayden said.

Identifying Dickson as John Doe was an ineffective security shield, some jurors said. Ladner is serving time for an unrelated assault charge and could easily tell inmates about Dickson's actions, jurors added.

"We didn't believe that would help," Hayden said. "It doesn't take a genius to figure out who Ladner's cellmate was."

National legal experts, meanwhile, were surprised and in some cases alarmed to hear a witness in a murder trial had been granted anonymity, especially when the informant is a prison inmate. Such cases often are fraught with problems. For example, a jailhouse informant in Los Angeles manufactured nearly a dozen bogus jailhouse confessions in the late 1980s before he was discredited, said Jack King, spokesman for the National Association of Criminal Defense Attorneys.

Granting a witness anonymity creates a perfect opportunity for that problem to reoccur, he said.

Jackie McMurtrie, assistant professor of law at the University of Washington, agrees.

"Jailhouse informants hear more confessions than a priest or a pastor," McMurtrie said. And "in many cases where people have been exonerated by DNA evidence, a jailhouse confession has been one of the things used to convict them."

Kathryn Kase, a Houston-based attorney who serves on the defense attorney association's national board, says defendants and the public lose.

"Trials are supposed to occur in public so the same sanitizing sunlight we have with other government processes is there when justice is being meted out," Kase said. Such John Doe status for a key witness not only thwarts the public process, it sends negative messages to a jury about a defendant.

"This tells the jury that the accused person is dangerous because the witness is afraid that if his real identity is known, he will be harmed for his testimony."

Copyright © 2004 by The Columbian Publishing Co.