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September 16, 2004

Judge OKs anonymity for murder trial witness

From: The Columbian, WA - Sep 16, 2004

Thursday, September 16, 2004
By STEPHANIE RICE and KEN OLSEN, Columbian staff writers

A Clark County Superior Court judge refused to identify a key witness in a murder trial, despite a challenge from The Columbian that granting the man anonymity violates the law and fails to protect the witness.

Judge Diane Woolard declined on Wednesday to reverse an earlier decision allowing an ex-cellmate of accused murderer Christopher Neil Ladner to testify as John Doe. Woolard argued that the witness will be at risk of harm from fellow inmates at Twin Rivers Corrections Unit in Monroe, northeast of Seattle, if his identity becomes public.

Ladner's retrial for first-degree murder in the 2000 death of Alex Smith began Monday.

The Columbian's attorney, Michele L. Earl-Hubbard of Davis Wright Tremaine in Seattle, argued fellow inmates will know the witness' identity. She said Ladner, who was serving a prison sentence for an unrelated assault when he roomed with John Doe, could spread the word.

"The one person who can do him harm will know who he is," Earl-Hubbard argued.

Woolard needs to consider that the public's right to know the names of witnesses is crucial to maintaining the credibility of the judicial system, she added.

In a letter to Woolard, Earl-Hubbard noted the Washington Supreme Court has ruled "that concealing the judicial process, for whatever purpose, erodes public confidence in the process and denies society in general the benefits of public scrutiny of the judicial process."

Woolard said she may reconsider those issues after the trial, which is expected to conclude next week.

Clark County senior deputy prosecutor Mike Kinnie requested anonymity for the witness during a meeting in Woolard's chambers last week. The witness is expected to take the stand today and testify that Ladner confessed to him when the two shared a prison cell. The witness wants to keep his identity secret because he fears retribution if he becomes known as a snitch in the prison where he is serving time for first-degree murder and first-degree assault.

Defense attorney Jeff Barrar did not object to the use of John Doe. In his opening statement Tuesday, Barrar told jurors that the witness has no credibility because he refuses to be identified.

The witness is a 34-year-old former Snohomish County resident whose name was easily obtained by The Columbian. He will be in prison until at least 2009, and possibly until 2019. The Columbian will consider whether to publish his name after the legal issue is resolved.

John Doe is no safer because of the judge's order, Columbian Editor Lou Brancaccio said.

"If the public allows a judge to indiscriminately and improperly allow someone to anonymously testify at a trial, society loses in the long run," Brancaccio said. "Our courts are open for a reason. It allows all of us to see justice at work and it works best in the open.

"In this particular case, suggesting that withholding the name of a witness who is a prisoner will somehow protect him, borders on being silly. The defendant will know who he is. Wouldn't logic tell you if the defendant wanted to cause this witness harm, he would simply call or write someone at the prison?"

Ladner, a former student at the Washington School for the Deaf, is accused of stabbing and shooting Alex Smith in February 2000. Ladner allegedly went to Smith's VanMall apartment to collect money on behalf of his girlfriend, who was Smith's former roommate. Ladner's first trial ended inconclusively earlier this year. Kinnie has said the jury's instructions should have been worded differently. Jurors acquitted Ladner under the theory he killed Smith in the middle of a robbery, but deadlocked on a theory the killing was premeditated.

Barrar challenged the decision to retry Ladner on the premeditated murder charge, saying it would violate his client's constitutional protection against being tried twice for the same crime. He reserved his right to appeal on the double-jeopardy grounds after Woolard gave prosecutors the green light to try Ladner again.

John Doe did not testify in the first trial.

Prosecutors do not have any physical evidence to tie Ladner to the crime and are relying on testimony from Ladner's former girlfriend, other acquaintances and John Doe.

Copyright © 2004 by The Columbian Publishing