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SJC: Attorneys Cannot Demand Immigration Status Of Trial Witnesses In Most Cases

John Adams Courthouse, home of the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court. (Joe Difazio for WBUR)
John Adams Courthouse, home of the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court. (Joe Difazio for WBUR)

Massachusetts' highest court affirmed Wednesday the murder conviction of a man whose defense attorneys argued he had received an unfair trial because they were unable to question state witnesses about their immigration statuses.

Fredys Chicas was convicted more than 10 years ago of beating Jose Santos, 31, to death with a baseball bat in Chelsea at a Christmas Eve party in 2005. Many of the witnesses were in the country illegally at the time of the trial, according to trial documents.

Defense attorneys for Chicas, now 49, were allowed to ask witnesses if they made deals with the government in exchange for testifying. The trial judge, however, established parameters that prevented the lawyers from asking specifically about a witness' immigration status.

Janet Pumphrey, an attorney for Chicas, told the Supreme Judicial Court in November that line of questioning didn't go far enough. Because Chicas' attorneys couldn't directly ask about the witnesses' immigration statuses, she said, the question of whether witnesses were biased toward helping the government would go unanswered.

"Because they were illegal aliens, they had a reason to want to please the prosecution," Pumphrey said. "They're afraid of deportation, they're going to do whatever it takes to please the Commonwealth."

The Supreme Judicial Court disagrees. The opinion of the court given Wednesday reads, in part:

There is no reason to believe that the fact that the witnesses may not have been legal residents of the United States was evidence of their ability to be truthful. In reality, a witness' status as an undocumented immigrant, for a variety of reasons, would make the witness less likely to cooperate with the government. ... The judge's well-reasoned balancing of the defendant's rights with the interests of the Commonwealth and its witnesses was commendable. The judge did not abuse her discretion in limiting the defendant's cross-examination of the Commonwealth's witnesses.

Suffolk County District Attorney Rachael Rollins applauded the decision, particularly the clarity of the court's opinion.

"We should not be asking people their status as residents or immigrants, or questions that could result in deportation, if they are coming forward and helping us," Rollins said. "In this particular case, we had witnesses that were not documented that, if they were fearful deportation, we could not have found this violent offender guilty in the first place."

Rollins said she's also happy to see the court address a "carve out," with the SJC stating in its opinion that the government must be clear when it has promised a witness something in return for his or her testimony.

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Shannon Dooling Twitter Reporter
Shannon Dooling is a reporter representing WBUR on a team of public radio station journalists in the New England News Collaborative.

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