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Government of Virgin Islands v. Smith

decided: February 5, 1980.


APPEAL FROM THE UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT FOR THE DISTRICT OF VIRGIN ISLANDS (D.C. Crim. Nos. 78-00138-01, 78-00138-02, 78-00138-03, and 78-00138-04)

Before Gibbons, Weis and Garth, Circuit Judges.

Author: Garth


In United States v. Herman, 589 F.2d 1191 (3d Cir. 1978) cert. denied 441 U.S. 913, 99 S. Ct. 2014, 60 L. Ed. 2d 386 (1979), this court explored the circumstances in which a defendant may claim that immunity must be provided to defense witnesses. Although the Herman court rejected the claim for immunity in the case before it, it recognized two possible situations in which the due process clause might compel the granting of immunity to defense witnesses. First, it noted that in cases where government actions denying use immunity to defense witnesses were undertaken with the "deliberate intention of distorting the judicial fact finding process," the court has the remedial power to order acquittal unless on retrial the government grants statutory immunity. 589 F.2d at 1204. Secondly, it noted that in certain cases a court may have "inherent authority to effectuate the defendant's compulsory process right by conferring a judicially fashioned immunity upon a witness whose testimony is essential to an effective defense." Id. (emphasis added).

The question of defense witness immunity surfaces once again in this case. Here, as contrasted with Herman, the record reveals sufficient evidence to constitute a prima facie showing under either of these due process theories.*fn1 Accordingly, we remand to the district court for an evidentiary hearing under the Herman guidelines to determine whether due process requires that defense witness immunity be granted.


In the early afternoon of June 16, 1978, Roy Phipps was assaulted by four young men. During the assault, which took place at a Saint Thomas housing project, 25 dollars was stolen from Phipps' pockets. This assault occurred shortly after another incident, allegedly involving a marijuana swindle, had taken place in a nearby courtyard. This latter altercation had also involved Phipps and had attracted the attention of a group of young men. It is undisputed that Phipps' assailants were members of this group, but their exact identities were the prime subject of controversy at trial.

During the course of the trial, three of the defendants Glen Smith (hereinafter referred to as "Glen"), Elton Rieara and Roland Georges sought to introduce the testimony of one Ernesto Sanchez. Sanchez had previously made a statement to the police which inculpated himself as one of Phipps' attackers*fn2 and identified three others, who were nicknamed "Scotto," "Mon" and "Mouth," as perpetrators of the crime. Apparently, these nicknames were not the nicknames by which Glen, Rieara or Georges were known. Elvis Smith, on the other hand, was known as "Scotto." Thus, while Sanchez' statement incriminated Elvis Smith, it would have implicitly exculpated the other three defendants, Glen, Rieara and Georges. Therefore, hoping that Sanchez' trial testimony would track his earlier statement to the police, these three defendants (hereinafter referred to as the "defense") called Sanchez as a defense witness.*fn3

Sanchez' testimony was not so easily forthcoming, however. He declined to make any significant substantive statement, claiming his fifth amendment privilege against self-incrimination. T.R. at 249-50. At that point, the defense, asserting an exception to the hearsay rule, claimed that Sanchez had become an unavailable witness and thereby sought to introduce into evidence the earlier statement which Sanchez made to the police. T.R. at 250. The government opposed the introduction of the statement arguing that it would be unable to cross-examine the hearsay declarant (Sanchez). T.R. at 252. The trial court sustained the government's objection.

After having been unsuccessful in obtaining the admission into evidence of Sanchez' prior statement, the defense then raised the subject of granting Sanchez immunity. T.R. at 253. Sanchez, who was less than sixteen years of age when the assault against Phipps was committed, came within the exclusive jurisdiction of the juvenile authorities in the Virgin Island Attorney General's office. The record reveals that Mr. Leonard Francis of that office had offered to grant Sanchez use immunity on the condition, prompted only out of prosecutorial courtesy, that the United States Attorney consent. T.R. at 206, 253. For reasons which were unexplained at trial and which the United States Attorney did not explain to this court at oral argument, this consent was never granted. Accordingly, the potentially exculpatory evidence which the defense desired to offer through Sanchez' testimony, was never presented to the jury.

Without the benefit of Sanchez' testimony, all four defendants were convicted on charges of robbery, and each was sentenced to six and one-half years of imprisonment. Each of the defendants has set forth various errors on appeal. A primary contention, common to Glen, Georges and Rieara is that their due process rights were violated by the failure to grant immunity to Sanchez. We find no basis by which to sustain any other claim they assert except for the immunity error.*fn4 We therefore affirm, by separate judgment order, the conviction of Elvis Smith who could not have benefited from Sanchez' testimony. With respect to the remaining three defendants Glen, Rieara and Georges all or any of whom might be exculpated by Sanchez' testimony, we remand for an evidentiary hearing to determine whether Sanchez should be immunized so as not to violate the defendants' due process rights.



In United States v. Herman, supra, this court took specific note of "our governmental system's strong tradition of deference to prosecutorial discretion" in conjunction with granting statutory immunity. 589 F.2d at 1203. It also noted the "tendency of the executive branch to exercise that discretion in ways that make it more likely that defendants will be convicted." Id. at 1204. Nevertheless, Herman recognized that under certain circumstances due process may require that the government afford use immunity for a defense witness. This recognition followed from this court's decision in United States v. Morrison, 535 F.2d 223 (3d Cir. 1976) which held that where prosecutorial misconduct occurred (in that case, intimidation of a defense witness), the government could be directed to either obtain use immunity, so that the witness could testify, or suffer a judgment of acquittal. Morrison, however, ...

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